There is no known cure for IBS, but it is possible to treat the symptoms. People can also prevent or reduce the severity of future attacks by identifying and avoiding potential triggers.

An irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) attack can happen at almost any time. Stomach pain is one of the main symptoms, along with drastic changes to a person’s bowel movements.

Sometimes, an attack can be related to stress or the food a person has eaten. Other times, it may be random with no clear trigger.

Keep reading to learn more about how to recognize, treat, and prevent IBS attacks.

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IBS is a long-term condition related to the large intestine. It is the term for a group of symptoms that occur together in the absence of any visible signs of damage to the large intestine.

IBS is a functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder, meaning that there is no structural reason why the symptoms occur.

IBS affects an estimated 7–18% of the general population worldwide. Although it does not severely harm health, it can affect a person’s quality of life.

The symptoms of IBS vary among individuals and attacks. In some cases, the symptoms that a person experiences may change over time.

Many other factors and conditions can cause one or more of the symptoms of IBS. However, if a person has a combination of the symptoms regularly, they may be experiencing IBS attacks.

Some of the most common symptoms of an IBS attack may include:

  • stomach pain
  • cramping
  • diarrhea
  • incontinence
  • nausea
  • constipation
  • bloating
  • gas
  • mucus in the stool
  • feeling as though a bowel movement has not completely emptied the bowel
  • experiencing an urgent need to empty the bowel

Other symptoms of an IBS attack unrelated to the GI tract may include:

A person with IBS may also experience anxiety and depression as a result of their other symptoms.

Some people with this condition might find it helpful to keep a symptom diary so that they can discuss the timing and frequency of their symptoms with their healthcare provider.

Doing this will also help them see whether there are any patterns, which could help them identify triggers of their IBS attacks.

Experts do not yet fully understand why IBS occurs. However, people experiencing IBS attacks share some common factors that could indicate potential causes.

Diet

Sometimes, IBS attacks may occur directly after eating. A specific type of food will not always be responsible. Sometimes, the fact that a person has eaten at all can cause the attack.

However, eating certain foods — such as processed or recooked foods — can sometimes increase symptoms of IBS.

According to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), foods that are high in fat may aggravate some symptoms of IBS.

High FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) foods can also increase the symptoms of IBS and may cause IBS attacks.

Eating irregularly can also cause a person to experience an IBS attack.

Stress

Some studies suggest that there is a connection between traumatic or stressful life events and IBS attacks.

The IBS Network even go so far as to state that emotional tension always makes IBS worse, although more research is necessary to clarify this assertion.

Gastrointestinal illness

There is some evidence to suggest that experiencing food poisoning, gastroenteritis, or enteritis may increase a person’s risk of developing IBS.

A 2017 study found that more than 10% of participants developed IBS after having infectious enteritis. This led researchers to conclude that there was a fourfold increase in the risk of a person going on to develop IBS after experiencing infectious enteritis.

The researchers also noted that females were more likely than males to develop IBS.

Hormones

Many people who menstruate can experience changes in their bowel movements and other GI-related symptoms during menstruation.

Those with IBS may find that their IBS attacks occur more frequently when they are menstruating.

One study suggests that this may be to do with elevated prostaglandin levels during menstruation.

The International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD) state that the link between gynecological disorders and IBS attacks needs further investigation.

Other reasons why IBS attacks occur may include:

  • issues involving the connection between the nerves of the brain and the intestine
  • poor regulation of the muscle contractions in the GI tract
  • increased sensitivity of the nerves of the GI tract

There are several treatment options for IBS attacks. These range from simply eliminating foods that may trigger attacks to medication and even some psychological interventions.

A person should seek consultation with a doctor about the most appropriate treatment plan for them.

Medications

Depending on the symptoms that a person experiences when they have an IBS attack, different medications are available to them.

Over-the-counter or prescription drugs may help decrease or stop diarrhea. These may include:

  • loperamide (Imodium)
  • eluxadoline (Viberzi)
  • rifaximin (Xifaxin)
  • alosetron (Lotronex)

For constipation, recommended medications may include:

  • laxatives
  • plecanatide (Trulance)
  • fiber supplements
  • linaclotide (Linzess)
  • lubiprostone (Amitiza)

Medications are also available that treat the stomach pain associated with an IBS attack. These include:

CBT

There is some evidence to suggest that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may help some people improve their IBS symptoms.

Doctors usually recommend CBT if medications have not been effective in treating the symptoms after 12 months of trying.

One 2017 study suggested that CBT can effectively treat IBS in many people and increase their quality of life.

CBT may help people manage the psychological side effects of living with IBS, as well as treating the actual symptoms.

Hypnotherapy

Some healthcare professionals assert that hypnotherapy may help reduce the symptoms of pain and discomfort associated with IBS. Therefore, some doctors may recommend hypnotherapy in certain cases.

There is no guaranteed way to prevent an IBS attack.

However, people may be able to minimize the likelihood or frequency of IBS attacks by altering some of their habits.

Changes that could be beneficial include:

  • eating smaller meals regularly
  • drinking plenty of water
  • regularly eating meals that contain plenty of fiber
  • reducing the amount of fiber in the diet
  • avoiding foods that are hard for the body to digest
  • avoiding foods high in fat
  • exercising regularly
  • following a low FODMAP diet

It may also be helpful for people to limit the amount of caffeine and alcohol they consume.

IBS is a chronic condition that has no cure but does have multiple treatment options.

Treatment involves controlling the symptoms rather than resolving the issue completely.

Some people may experience IBS attacks regularly, whereas others may have periods of their life without any attacks.

The most important thing is for people to learn to recognize the signs of an attack and begin a treatment plan that works for them.