Irritable bowel syndrome subtypes according to bowel habit: revisiting the alternating subtype

Eur J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2003 Feb;15(2):165-72. doi: 10.1097/00042737-200302000-00010.


Background: Disturbed bowel habit, diarrhoea or constipation is a key manifestation of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In some patients, diarrhoea and constipation alternate, giving rise to the so-called alternating subtype.

Aims: To assess IBS subtype breakdown (constipation (C-IBS), diarrhoea (D-IBS) or alternating (A-IBS)) according to the Rome II criteria and patients' self-assessment, the predominance in the alternating subtype (i.e. constipation, diarrhoea or neither), and the medical and personal impact, including health-related quality of life (HRQoL), of the different IBS subtypes.

Subjects and methods: Two thousand individuals selected randomly to represent the general population were classified as potential IBS subjects (n = 281) or as non-potential IBS subjects (n = 1719) according to a validated questionnaire. Bowel habit classification was determined using the Rome II IBS supportive symptoms.

Results: Among 201 subjects meeting the Rome I criteria, 15% presented with D-IBS, 44% presented with C-IBS, 19% presented with A-IBS, and 22% presented with normal bowel habit. Among the 63 subjects meeting the Rome II criteria, 23% presented with A-IBS. According to the subjects' self-assessment, of those meeting the Rome I criteria, 16% considered themselves to have D-IBS, 66% to have C-IBS and 18% to have A-IBS. In subjects meeting the Rome II criteria, 24% considered themselves to have A-IBS. Among those classified with A-IBS by the Rome II criteria, most considered themselves to be constipated. Regardless of the subtype self-classification, most subjects reported a normal frequency of bowel movements. Clinical manifestations in A-IBS were very similar to those of C-IBS but with the added presence of defecatory urgency. Abdominal discomfort/pain and frequency of visits to physicians were greater in the A-IBS subtype than in the other two IBS subtypes. HRQoL was affected similarly in all IBS subtypes.

Conclusions: Approximately one-quarter of subjects with IBS belong to the A-IBS subtype by the Rome II criteria, although the majority consider themselves to be constipated; indeed, clinical manifestations are more akin to the C-IBS subtype than to the D-IBS subtype. Abdominal discomfort/pain and frequency of visits to physicians are greater in the A-IBS subtype than in the other two IBS subtypes, while HRQoL is impaired similarly.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Colonic Diseases, Functional / classification*
  • Colonic Diseases, Functional / complications
  • Colonic Diseases, Functional / physiopathology
  • Constipation* / etiology
  • Constipation* / physiopathology
  • Diarrhea* / etiology
  • Diarrhea* / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pain / physiopathology
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care
  • Quality of Life