Irritable bowel syndrome

Abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea are typical symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Although it is not dangerous, it can be very painful and bothersome for those affected.

At a glance

  • Irritable bowel syndrome is not dangerous.
  • Mild cases of irritable bowel syndrome, which are the most common type, can be effectively managed without treatment.
  • There is no cure for irritable bowel syndrome.
  • According to estimates, irritable bowel syndrome occurs in around 10 to 20 out of every 100 people.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome typically develops between the ages of 20 and 30.

Note: The information in this article cannot and should not replace a medical consultation and must not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment.

Irritable bowel syndrome: woman sitting on a couch holding her arms together and pressing them to her belly. The woman is leaning her chest forward slightly and pressing her thighs together. Her tension is obvious from the way she is holding her body.

What is irritable bowel syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is also referred to as "nervous bowel" or spastic colon. Typical symptoms are abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea.

Irritable bowel syndrome is not dangerous. Most cases are mild and can be effectively managed without treatment.

However, for some people, symptoms can be so severe that they greatly limit and negatively impact everyday life.

There is no cure for irritable bowel syndrome. It is possible for many to determine over time what makes their digestive issues better or worse. There are also various ways to alleviate symptoms.

What are the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome?

Cramps, persistent abdominal or lower abdominal pain, and changes in stool are typical symptoms. Women tend to experience constipation, while men typically experience diarrhea. Some people alternate between constipation and diarrhea.

Flatulence, a feeling of fullness, and a mucous discharge are all possible signs of irritable bowel syndrome.

What causes irritable bowel syndrome?

It is not yet definitely known what causes irritable bowel syndrome. Some theories assume that hypersensitive intestinal nerves, problems with the intestinal muscles, and inflammation of the intestinal wall play a role.

It has also been observed that irritable bowel syndrome is more common in those who previously had a gastrointestinal infection with fever and severe diarrhea. Hereditary factors may also play a role. In addition, eating habits, food intolerances, psychological strain, and stress are considered possible triggers.

However, for many of these factors it is not clear if they are a cause or result of irritable bowel syndrome.

How common is irritable bowel syndrome?

It is estimated that irritable bowel syndrome occurs in around 10 to 20 out of every 100 people, with women being affected approximately twice as often as men.

According to estimates, irritable bowel syndrome occurs in around 10 to 20 out of every 100 people.

Most cases of irritable bowel syndrome develop between the ages of 20 and 30.

How does irritable bowel syndrome progress?

Irritable bowel syndrome is usually chronic. i.e., it requires long-term management. Those with irritable bowel syndrome often have periods with only mild or even no symptoms followed by periods with more severe symptoms.

How is irritable bowel syndrome diagnosed?

Doctors refer to irritable bowel syndrome in the case of:

  • symptoms such as abdominal pain and flatulence lasting longer than 3 months.
  • stool changes, e.g., constipation, diarrhea, or less frequent/more frequent bowel movements.
  • symptoms that noticeably impact quality of life. 
  • no indication of another disease that could be causing the symptoms. 

Note: Irritable bowel syndrome is not necessarily responsible for such symptoms. There can also be other causes like lactose intolerance. Food intolerances can be ruled out as the cause with the help of other examinations or blood tests. However, it is possible for a person to have food intolerances as well as irritable bowel syndrome.

Important: Significant weight loss, blood in the stool, fever, or pallor are rather an indication of other intestinal diseases.

For example, inflammatory bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. Diverticulitis, which is an inflammatory condition in which feces becomes trapped in pockets in the intestinal wall, is another possibility. Gall stones can also trigger sudden and intense abdominal pain. 

If the digestive issues are accompanied by other symptoms like blood in the stool, colon cancer should be considered. However, colon cancer is very rare in people under the age of 50. Medical examination by a doctor is always required in the case of blood in the stool. 

How is irritable bowel syndrome treated?

Sufficient exercise and a balanced diet are essential for healthy digestion. However, doctors often recommend additional measures for people with irritable bowel syndrome. For example, those affected can test whether certain foods make their symptoms worse. Any foods that cause worsening of symptoms should not be eaten.

Some people with irritable bowel syndrome can minimize their symptoms by eating their meals in multiple small portions throughout the day. It can also be helpful to keep a diary to determine what improves and what worsens symptoms.

Als Maßnahmen, um einem möglichen Reizdarmsyndrom entgegenzuwirken, zählen unter anderem eine ausgewogene Ernährung, genügend Bewegung und ein Ernährungstagebuch.

Various treatments for irritable bowel syndrome are also available. In consultation with their doctor, people with irritable bowel syndrome can try different treatments to see what works for them. Treatments that are helpful for some people can worsen symptoms in others.

Most treatment options have not yet been sufficiently studied. However, studies have shown that some treatments are effective at least in certain people or alleviate symptoms at least temporarily.

Treatment options include:

  • peppermint oil
  • probiotics
  • anticonvulsants
  • laxatives
  • antibiotics
  • antidepressants
  • psychological methods like cognitive behavioral therapy and hypnosis

For more information, for example about what can improve and what can worsen irritable bowel syndrome, visit

What is everyday life like for people with irritable bowel syndrome?

Mild cases of irritable bowel syndrome can usually be effectively managed. However, some people with irritable bowel syndrome have symptoms that are so severe that they significantly impact their quality of life. For example, in certain situations, some people can suddenly experience such an overwhelming urge to defecate that they need urgent access to a bathroom. People with this symptom need to carefully plan their meals and activities.

This complicates everyday life and makes spontaneous activities problematic.

People with severe irritable bowel syndrome can be embarrassed by their flatulence or because they often need to go to the bathroom. These issues are sometimes not taken seriously by friends and family and sometimes not even by doctors. This can be hurtful to those affected.

However, most people find ways to live with their irritable bowel syndrome without too many limitations.

In cooperation with the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (Institut für Qualität und Wirtschaftlichkeit im Gesundheitswesen) (IQWiG).

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