Diagnosing Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is unlike diagnosing other diseases. The doctor does not simply take a vial or swab of blood for testing to determine if a patient has IBS. No single test is currently available to determine whether IBS is responsible for the symptoms a person is experiencing.
When a patient goes to the doctor complaining of IBS symptoms such as stomach cramps, abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea, the doctor has to rule out other possible causes of the symptoms and pay close attention to the symptoms before giving a diagnosis.
Here are a few things that doctors do before making a diagnosis:
Doctors usually do IBS diagnosis by taking the patient’s thorough medical history, identifying typical symptoms, and conducting a complete physical exam then finally testing blood samples for other possible causes of the symptoms. Stool tests can be used for checking if stool contains minute amounts of blood as well as sometimes excluding an active infection as the one causing the symptoms.
Doctors then usually order laboratory tests to rule out other conditions that may be causing symptoms similar to IBS. Doctors may test stool samples, order, X-rays, run blood tests, or even perform a colonoscopy to ensure that something besides IBS is not responsible for the symptoms. A colonoscopy is often used for patients over 50 years in age.
Symptoms and signs that may suggest organic disease as opposed to IBS include blood in stools, short duration of symptoms, unintentional weight loss, fever, anemia, symptoms associated with recent antibiotics, family history of gastrointestinal disease including celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer and ovarian cancer in women that can initially present itself simply as abdominal bloating. If one or several of the features is present, further clinical investigation is needed.
A diagnosis of IBS can also be done by looking at the symptoms. If a person has experienced abdominal pain for at least 12 weeks in a 12-month period even when the 12 weeks are not consecutive and if he or she experiences 2 of the following 3 things then an IBS diagnosis can be made.
- A change in the frequency of bowel movements
- A bowel movement that causes abdominal pain to dissipate
- A change in the appearance of stool (either too loose and watery or lumpy and hard)
Other possible signs of IBS include a swollen abdomen, having problems passing stool, feeling that the bowel is not empty even after visiting the bathroom, mucus in stool, and an urgency to have bowel movement.
A major trigger for IBS symptoms is stress that can result from major life changes including getting a new job or getting married. For women, IBS symptoms are particularly severe during their menstrual period probably due to the effect of the hormones on IBS.
Providing the doctor with a detailed information about symptoms and understanding what triggers them can go a long way towards helping with diagnosis. Many doctors suggest keeping a food diary to pinpoint the exact cause of the symptoms then forwarding the information over to the doctor to help with diagnosis and proper treatment.