The patient with irritable bowel syndrome-type symptoms: when to investigate and how?

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Purpose of review 

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a very common disorder whose clinical presentation varies considerably between patients as well as within the same individual over time. Many of its symptoms, such as pain, diarrhea, constipation and bloating, may be manifestations of a host of other gastrointestinal diseases; some accompanied by increased mortality. This presents the clinician with a real dilemma: how to sensibly investigate the patient in which one suspects IBS but there is a nagging doubt that 'it could be something else'? Could one miss 'something serious'? This short review attempts to provide both an evidence-based response to these vexing questions and a practical guide to detecting alternative diagnoses in the subject with IBS-type symptoms.

Recent findings 

Clinical features, patient demographics and the clinical context can help to significantly narrow the differential diagnosis of the individual with IBS-type symptoms and may permit a positive diagnosis of IBS. The advent of noninvasive serological and stool tests has greatly facilitated differentiation from celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease, respectively. In the older, female diarrhea sufferer microscopic colitis should be considered. The role of bile acid diarrhea in the individual with diarrhea-predominant IBS is emphasized; the status of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth in IBS remain uncertain.

Summary 

Attention to detail in the clinical evaluation of the individual with IBS-like symptoms will facilitate a selective and targeted approach to investigation. Wherever indicated, widely available serological and fecal tests will serve to bolster the diagnosis by excluding other options. Proceeding to more invasive testing should be dictated by clinical presentation and scenario with the threshold for intervention being generally lower among those with prominent diarrhea.



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