Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?

Irritable bowel syndrome, often referred to as IBS, is a condition which is associated with bloating, constipation, diarrhoea and cramps. Irritable bowel syndrome is inclined to cause discomfort, but it is not a serious condition and most people find that changing their lifestyle and diet improves their symptoms. Irritable bowel syndrome is one of the most common digestive conditions and it is estimated that around 10% -20% of people in the UK experience Irritable bowel syndrome at some phase in their lives. Irritable bowel syndrome is much more common among women than men and symptoms tend to develop for the first time when people are in their twenties or thirties.

Causes of IBS

The exact cause of IBS is unknown and most experts believe there is not a single cause. The general consensus suggests that IBS is caused by a disruption in the normal digestion process. There are a range of reasons why the process of digesting food may be disrupted, including:

  • Changes in the way food moves through the gut.
  • Psychological factors: there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that psychological factors such as stress and anxiety make symptoms of IBS worse.
  • Increased sensitivity to pain in the gut.

Research into the causes of IBS is ongoing, but there is evidence to suggest that certain foods can trigger symptoms. People with IBS often find that eating fatty, fried and processed foods, in addition to fizzy drinks, caffeine and alcohol, can make symptoms worse.

Symptoms of Irritable bowel syndrome

Symptoms of IBS tend to come and go and some people experience bouts that can last up to 4 days and then go for long periods of time without any symptoms. A lot of people find that symptoms tend to be worse after eating. Common symptoms of IBS include:

  • Changes in normal bowel habits, including constipation and diarrhoea.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Wind (flatulence).
  • Needing to the go to toilet suddenly.
  • Stomach cramps.
  • Feeling like you have not voided your bowels even when you have just been to the toilet.
  • Passing mucus from the back passage.
  • Bloating.

Sometimes, people suffer from symptoms associated with depression and anxiety, since they find their condition embarrassing and feel awkward in social situations.

Should I see a doctor?

IBS is usually a mild condition but you should see your GP if your symptoms are affecting the way you live your life and you are experiencing symptoms on a repeat basis. There are certain warning signs (known as red flag symptoms) you should look out for, including:

  • Unexplained weight loss (of 4 lbs or more).
  • Passing blood in the urine or stools.
  • Swellings or lumps in the abdomen or rectum (back passage).
  • Anaemia (symptoms include tiredness, paleness and generally feeling lethargic).
  • Disturbed sleep patterns as a result of needing the toilet.
  • Bowel changes if you are over the age of 40.

If you experience any of the symptoms listed above it is important to see your doctor.

Types of IBS

There are dissimilar types of IBS and they are classified as per the symptoms. There are three main patterns linked to IBS and these are:

  • IBS with constipation.
  • IBS with diarrhoea.
  • IBS with constipation and diarrhoea.

Diagnosing IBS

There is no specific test to diagnose IBS but your GP may recommend tests to rule out other conditions, such as Coeliac disease and its similar symptoms. Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and medical history and they will usually be able to diagnose IBS through this method. If you have two or more of the symptoms associated with IBS, including changes in bowel habits, abdominal pain that is relieved when you go to the toilet or passing wind, worse symptoms after eating or passing mucus from the back passage, it is likely that you have IBS.

Usually, further tests will only be ordered if red flag symptoms are present. This is to test for underlying conditions that could be causing IBS, and you may also be referred for further tests if you have family history of bowel or ovarian cancer or you are over the age of 65 and have noticed changes in your bowel habits. Tests carried out may include an endoscopy and a sigmoidoscopy, which allow doctors to see inside the bowel.

Treatment for IBS

There is no cure for Irritable bowel syndrome but there are treatments to relieve symptoms. Often, changing your diet can reduce symptoms. However, there is no set diet for people with IBS, though it is a good idea to keep track of the foods you eat and identify the effects they have on your body. Some foods will trigger symptoms and you should avoid these in the future. It may be advisable to keep an eye on your fibre intake as, if you suffer from diarrhoea, you should try to limit the amount of insoluble fibre you eat, while those with constipation might benefit from increasing their intake of soluble fibre. Examples of soluble fibre include:

  • Oats.
  • Fruit.
  • Root vegetables.
  • Rye.

Examples of insoluble fibre include:

  • Wholemeal bread.
  • Bran .
  • Nuts.
  • Seeds.
  • Cereals.

Your GP may also advise you to eat smaller meals throughout the day rather than 3 big meals, take in more fluid, limit your caffeine intake, avoid fatty and processed foods and avoid skipping meals. Medication can also be used to relieve symptoms. Medicines include those to ease diarrhoea and constipation medication to ease pain and cramping.

If IBS is brought on by stress, your GP may recommend psychological therapies.

Is IBS ever serious?

IBS is not a serious condition, but it can cause embarrassment and a lack of self-esteem. However, it is not medically dangerous and will never be life-threatening. In some cases, IBS may be indicative of a core condition and this may be serious. It is essential to see your doctor if you experience any of the red flag symptoms listed above.

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