What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Overview  |  Symptoms  |  Causes  |  Diagnosis  |  Treatment

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a long-term condition of the digestive system. It is common and can affect anyone, although women are more likely than men to develop IBS. Though age is not a factor,  people usually develop symptoms during their twenties. Most people with IBS experience abdominal pain and bloating; symptoms of IBS tend to flare up from time to time, which is often triggered by stress or diet.

Symptoms of IBS

Symptoms of IBS typically come and go and most people can manage their symptoms from home unless they are unusually severe. Symptoms of IBS appear during flare-ups, which usually last a few days, although this really can vary from person to person, with some sufferers having symptoms for a long period of time. Common symptoms of IBS include:

Abdominal pain and discomfort: This is often described as a cramp or spasm. The level of pain can vary from person to person and is usually eased by emptying bowels.

Bloating and swelling: Feeling bloated, sometimes with excess wind.

Change in stool patterns: Constipation and diarrhoea, the urgent need to pass stools, feeling as though bowels have not been fully emptied and the passing of mucus.

Causes IBS

The cause of IBS remains unknown, although experts believe that there are factors which may contribute to the development of IBS, including:

  • an increase in gut sensitivity caused by nerves or muscles in the gut overacting; this could be as a result of stress, food intolerance or an infection
  • over-sensitivity of the digestive system – mild abdominal discomfort for some people may be severe abdominal pain for others
  • psychological factors

How is IBS Diagnosed?

As there are no tests that can confirm the diagnosis of IBS, your doctor will make a diagnosis based on your symptoms. It is likely that your doctor will ask about the pain you are experiencing, along with any changes in the pattern of your bowel movement.

Symptoms of IBS are pretty typical, making it easy for your doctor to make a diagnosis. However, if your doctor suspects that you may be suffering from another condition – ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, an infection, coeliac disease, etc. –  then they may recommend further tests, including a stool or blood sample. 

Treating IBS

There is not a cure for IBS, therefore, treatment involves easing symptoms and providing a better quality of life. In a lot of cases, symptoms of IBS tend to be mild and do not require any treatment, however if your symptoms of IBS interfere with your daily life, then there are solutions available.

Self-help

Most people with IBS find that their symptoms of IBS can greatly be reduced with a few changes to their lifestyle.

Diet

Adapting your diet is an important part of managing IBS symptoms. As different people have different requirements, you will need to find out which food, if any, triggers your symptoms. Keeping a food diary to assess which foods cause flare-ups and which foods don’t is recommended. Additionally, eating the right type of fibre may also help to ease your symptoms. There are two types of fibre:

  • soluble fibre: fibre that your body can digest and includes food such as, barley, root vegetables, fruit and oats etc.
  • insoluble fibre: fibre that your body cannot digest and, which stays in the gut as part of your stools. This fibre is in foods such as bran, whole grain, nuts and cereal.

Most doctors advise people with IBS to minimise their intake of insoluble fibre to help reduce flare-ups.

Regular exercise

It is important to get regular exercise anyway, but exercise is recommended as a way to ease IBS symptoms.

Stress management 

It is said that there is a link between stress and flare-ups, with higher levels of stress leading to frequent bouts of symptoms that may also be more severe. Doctors usually advise people with IBS to manage their level of stress with methods like meditation, exercise and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Medication

Medication is used to treat the various symptoms of IBS and are typically advised if symptoms do not improve with lifestyle changes. Medication may include:

Antispasmodic medicines

These are used to treat abdominal pain and discomfort associated with IBS. They work by reducing the spasm-like feeling in the abdomen by relaxing the muscles in the wall of your gut.

Laxatives

If you have IBS with constipation, it is likely that your doctor will recommend laxatives, which will help you to pass stools.

Antidiarrheal medicine

This is recommended if you have IBS with diarrhoea. This medication will slow down the rate of which the muscles contract in your bowels, thus slowing down the rate of which food is processed. These are taken when needed, typically in advance.