When you live with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea are regular and unwanted guests.
These common IBS symptoms disappear and reappear; they range from mild, to severe and debilitating. The constant symptom fluctuation makes it difficult to know if and when to seek medical attention and treatment.
Signs You Should Seek Treatment for IBS
Hopefully, you’re already working with a knowledgeable, empathetic, and engaged physician who has experience treating IBS. If not, take the time to find one. Currently, there is no official “cure” for IBS. The wisdom of a physician who is up-to-date with current IBS research, open to alternative treatments, and who works closely with you to establish possible causes, your triggers, and the right lifestyle choices to relieve the symptoms of IBS is essential to your well-being.
Together, the two of you can create a treatment plan that minimizes IBS upsets. This plan should also establish a clear protocol for when you should try to treat and support your symptoms at home, and when the symptoms are signaling it’s time for more direct medical treatment.
It requires a delicate balance between living a normal, fulfilling life without constant medical interruptions, and not pushing yourself so long without them that you are crippled by physical discomfort and/or embarrassing or debilitating symptoms. The following are guidelines, or signs, for when a patient should seek treatment for IBS so the pendulum doesn’t swing too far in the wrong direction.
Severe and Sustained Abdominal Pain
While IBS causes frequent abdominal pain, it’s often a low-grade discomfort that is more annoying than anything else. Keep track of your pain levels and rate them on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 meaning “barely there” and 10 meaning “I’m in excruciating agony.”
Contact your doctor if abdominal pain is living in the 7 to 10 zone. This intense level of pain should always be evaluated by a medical professional.
A cramp here or there is one thing. When those cramps become too intense or frequent that you are unable to walk, work, or move your body normally, it is a good sign that things are moving through the GI tract too fast and need to be evaluated by your doctor.
Gas, Gas and More Gas
Chronic bloating and gas are telltale side effects of IBS. However, there are limits. When you’re experiencing gas that differs from your normal patterns, seems unusually strong or foul-smelling, or is preventing you from going to work or attending social functions, let your your know. They can work with you to find a treatment that can help you get your life back.
Constipation Lasting Longer than a Few Days
Individuals without IBS probably don’t need to seek treatment for constipation lasting a few days. However, those with IBS should check in with their doctor anytime they haven’t had a bowel movement for three days or longer. Don’t rely on laxatives to solve the problem. Using laxatives perpetually, without a doctor’s recommendation, can get you into trouble as habitual laxative use can damage parts of your already-tender GI tract.
In the meantime, do your best to get as much natural fiber into your system as you can, and consider taking an over-the-counter magnesium supplement (as instructed on the label), which serves as a gentle laxative to get the bowels moving.
Then, of course, there is the other end of the spectrum. When you’re not constipated, you may find yourself in the throes of chronic diarrhea. In addition to being a nuisance, chronic diarrhea is painful and can irritate or harm the lower bowels and rectum.
Extended bouts of diarrhea also compromise your general physical and emotional health because it dehydrates you and prevents your body from having the time it needs to absorb nutrients from your food.
Mucus in Your Stool
When the GI tract gets irritated, it will start to secrete larger-than-normal amounts of mucus to coat the lining, eliminate irritants, and heal itself. While a little mucus in your stool is okay from time to time, notable quantities indicate a “red flag” from your GI tract that means it needs help and a phone call to your doctor’s office.
Pain that Is Unusual
Perhaps you are used to having discomfort from bloating or experience occasional mild cramps, but now you’re experiencing something different – more extreme pain, pain in a different location, pain that lasts longer than normal, etc. Anytime you experience abdominal or GI pain that seems different or unusual, it’s worth checking in with your doctor.
Symptoms that Keep You from Your Normal Activities
The goal of any physician treating a patient with IBS is to mitigate the symptoms as much as possible, so they don’t interfere with normal lifestyle and activities. If your symptoms cause you to call in sick, miss important family events, or cancel social engagements, you need to be seen by your doctor.
Are you experiencing severe IBS symptoms? Schedule a consultation with the specialists at CRS in any of our three Richmond area locations.
As the longest operating colon and rectal practice in the area and the largest state-of-the-art practice on the East Coast we are committed to to providing all patients the special care and education needed for the treatment of colon and rectal problems including IBS, hemorrhoids, routine colonoscopies and more.