Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) represents one of the most common reasons for primary care visits and consultation with a gastroenterologist. It is characterized by abdominal discomfort, bloating and disturbed defecation in the absence of any identifiable physical, radiologic or laboratory abnormalities indicative of organic gastrointestinal disease. IBS is a costly disorder, responsible for significant direct and indirect costs to patients and society. Much of the cost attributed to IBS arises from the time and resources used to establish the diagnosis. Historically IBS has been viewed by many as a diagnosis of exclusion rather than as a primary diagnosis, and many patients with typical symptoms will undergo an extensive array of diagnostic tests and procedures prior to the eventual diagnosis of IBS.
Recent reviews addressing the management of such patients have cast doubt on the necessity for this degree of testing. Current best evidence does not support the routine use of blood tests, stool studies, breath tests, abdominal imaging or lower endoscopy in order to exclude organic gastrointestinal disease in patients with typical IBS symptoms without alarm features. Serological testing for celiac sprue in this population may eventually prove useful but validation of studies indicating an increased prevalence of this disease in patients with suspected IBS is needed.
The development and refinement of symptom-based criteria defining the clinical syndrome of IBS has greatly facilitated the diagnosis of this condition, which can be confidently diagnosed through the identification of typical symptoms, normal physical examination and the exclusion of alarm features. The presence of alarm features or persistent non-response to symptom-directed therapies should prompt a more detailed diagnostic evaluation dictated by the patient's predominant symptoms.