What is irritable bowel syndrome?
Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a digestive system disorder that affects one in five people at some point in their life. Women are twice as likely as men to develop the condition. There is no known cause of IBS and no specific cure, but a range of approaches can lead to good symptom control.
IBS is a functional problem, rather than a physical one. This means that in most cases there is no obvious abnormality in the structure of the gut that would cause the symptoms.
What are the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome?
The symptoms of IBS vary from person to person, but generally include one or more of the following:
- Abdominal cramps, which often improve after passing a stool
- Excessive flatulence or wind
- Passing mucus with the stools
- Urgent or excessive need to visit the toilet.
In most cases, the symptoms of IBS are unpredictable and will come and go, with flare-ups lasting anything from a few days to a few months. During a flare-up, you may also experience other associated symptoms, such as nausea, headaches, and tiredness.
Although IBS poses no long-term health threat, the symptoms can have a significant impact on quality of life. They can restrict your work life and prevent you from having a normal social life. IBS is sometimes linked to depression or a generalised anxiety disorder.
What causes irritable bowel syndrome?
The cause of IBS is not known, although there are several suggested factors, including:
- Disruption to the signals from the brain to the gut
- Increased sensitivity of the bowel lining
- Genetic factors
- Previous gut-related illnesses (e.g. post-infectious IBS)
- An imbalance in the bacteria in the gut; some organisms have been implicated but there is limited conclusive evidence.
In many cases, the incidence of IBS symptoms can be linked to specific foods or lifestyle factors such as stress. It is a good idea to keep a diary of your food intake and stress levels to help identify your own personal triggers for IBS symptoms.
Once you understand what causes your IBS symptoms, you will be able to manage your symptoms better and reduce the incidence of flare-ups.
Some of the triggers for a flare of IBS may include:
- Fatty foods
- Stress or emotional problems
- Medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen.
Even if you have identified and eliminated the triggers for your IBS, the symptoms may not go away completely. You may have to learn to live with low-grade symptoms and occasional flare-ups.
When to seek medical advice
If you experience unexplained weight loss, any swelling or lumps in your abdomen or you pass blood in your stools, you should seek medical attention straight away. These are not symptoms of IBS and could indicate a more serious condition such as inflammatory bowel disease, coeliac disease, or bowel cancer.
Since there is no cure for IBS, many people do not consult their GP about their problems. However, it is well worth discussing your symptoms and getting a referral to a gastroenterologist, as they can help you identify the triggers and make the diet and lifestyle changes you need to reduce the symptoms.
At The Physicians' Clinic our Gastroenterology and Hepatology Team is able to offer diagnosis to rule out conditions producing symptoms that may be mistaken for IBS. We can also provide a comprehensive management plan based on a holistic approach that includes medical treatment, lifestyle advice, and changes to your diet.