DEAR MAYO CLINIC: For the past year or so, I feel like I am often either constipated or I have diarrhea, with only a few “normal” days here and there. I have a friend who has IBS, and she suggested I be tested for it as well. But my symptoms are not as severe as hers. Would you suggest I see a doctor about my symptoms?
ANSWER: Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, can cause the symptoms you describe, but other medical conditions can trigger them, too. It would be a good idea to see your doctor and talk to him or her about your symptoms. Although no specific test to diagnose IBS exists at this time, your doctor can then decide whether additional tests are needed to rule out other disorders.
IBS is a disorder that affects the intestines. It’s not clear what causes IBS, but several factors seem to play a role in its development. The walls of the intestines are lined with layers of muscle that contract and relax in a coordinated rhythm as they move food — which later becomes waste — from your stomach through your intestinal tract to your rectum. If you have IBS, the contractions may be stronger and last longer than normal. That can lead to abdominal pain or discomfort as food, gas or stool passes through the GI tract. IBS is also associated with bowel irregularity — sometimes diarrhea, sometimes constipation, sometimes both. Common associated symptoms can include gas and bloating.