Could your GI problems be caused by Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

February 19, 2015 in Disease Management  •  By Miles Varn
Irritable Bowel Syndrome

One of the most difficult gastrointestinal conditions to diagnose accurately is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Although studies estimate that approximately 10 to 15 percent of adults are affected by IBS, only five to seven percent of the population has been diagnosed with the condition. So, what steps do you need to take to get an accurate diagnosis?

Why it’s difficult to get a diagnosis

One reason that it’s often difficult to diagnose IBS is that the symptoms of the condition are similar to a range of other health problems, including Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, food allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, parasitic infection, bowel cancers, and in women, endometriosis and ovarian cancer.

The general symptoms associated with IBS can include:

  • Abdominal pain or discomfort
  • Relief of pain after a bowel movement
  • Diarrhea and/or constipation
  • Whitish mucus in stools
  • Swollen or bloated abdomen
  • Nausea
  • Lethargy
  • Back pain
  • Increased urinary frequency

For years, IBS was primarily what is known as a diagnosis of exclusion. That means that physicians performed a wide range of tests for other diseases and conditions and only arrived at a diagnosis of IBS by ruling out other possibilities. More recently, gastroenterologists use one of two sets of criteria, the Rome criteria or the Manning criteria, to diagnose IBS. These criteria include a specific set of symptoms that must be present as well as a set of “red flag” symptoms that may indicate that you have a different, more serious condition, such as colon cancer.

The Rome criteria include:

  • Symptoms that started at least six months ago
  • Abdominal pain or discomfort that has occurred at least three days a month in the last three months
  • Relief of pain after a bowel movement
  • Diarrhea and/or constipation

The Manning criteria focus on:

  • Relief of pain after a bowel movement
  • Whitish mucus in stools
  • Incomplete bowel movements
  • Diarrhea and/or constipation

The keys to getting an accurate diagnosis

The first step to getting an accurate diagnosis is to see a gastroenterologist who has experience diagnosing and treating this condition. A health advisor can help connect you with a top specialist in the field. You will need to provide your physician with details about how often you experience symptoms and what triggers them. For example, do your symptoms get worse when you consume certain foods and drinks, like fried food, caffeinated beverages, alcohol, dairy, chocolate or soda? Does stress make your symptoms worse?

Your physician will gather information about your personal and family health history, any medications you’re currently taking and your eating habits. The physician will also perform a physical exam and may order blood tests and other diagnostic tests such as a colonoscopy or X-ray of the lower GI tract, especially if you have any of the “red flag” symptoms, such as blood in the stool, weight loss or fever.

If you are diagnosed with IBS, it’s good to know that, though living with the symptoms can be difficult at times, the condition does not lead to other health problems or damage your gastrointestinal tract.

A second opinion can help you get an accurate diagnosis

A recent European study found that one in ten people with inflammatory bowel disease are misdiagnosed with IBS. Because IBS can be difficult to diagnose, you may want to seek a second opinion, especially if the treatments you’re currently using are not as effective as you would like them to be.