IBS stands for irritable bowel syndrome; a chronic condition that affects the digestive system, namely, the small and large intestine. Its most common signs are abdominal pain and cramping, and regular, troublesome bowel habits such as constipation and diarrhoea. It can have a big impact on your quality of life, and can be quite an embarrassing condition to live with, but treatments are available that can relax the muscles in the digestive system to encourage it into working normally again.
IBS isn’t life-threatening, and there’s no test for it, but the symptoms can mimic other conditions, so your GP might decide to rule out things like colitis, IBD, and coeliac disease.
There isn’t a cure for IBS, and doctors aren’t sure yet if there’s a specific cause for it, so most people just manage their symptoms with medications and other therapies. Whilst it’s not clear whether IBS is a hereditary condition, it can run in families, but this could be down to sharing the same gut bacteria, same living environment, and eating the same foods.
"IBS is pretty much what it says on the tin - irritating! Abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhoea and constipation are the main symptoms. You might experience all of them, or just a combination of a few. Luckily, IBS isn’t life threatening, but it can impact a person’s quality of life. A definitive cause hasn’t yet been decided, but the good news is that there are medications available to relieve the symptoms and give you a more comortable life."
What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?
IBS is a long term (often lifelong) condition that affects the digestive system. It isn’t usually a life-threatening condition but it can be life-altering, often causing discomfort and pain. In people with the condition, the gut tends to be more sensitive and reactive. It’s more common in women, and it’s thought to affect 10-20% of the UK’s population. It’s thought that in people with IBS, food passes through the digestive system either too quickly, or too slowly, causing a change in bowel habits such as diarrhoea or constipation.
Constipation in otherwise healthy people is usually caused by a lack of fibre or fluids in their diet, but in people with IBS, it can just be caused by the condition itself. You have constipation if you aren’t regularly passing stools, or if your poo is hard, dry, or lumpy. It may also be difficult to pass stools, causing you to strain whilst on the toilet.
Diarrhoea, the other type of troublesome bowel habit, is usually caused by an infection or bug, but in IBS it can just be a common symptom, again, caused by the condition itself. Diarrhoea is classified by having soft, loose, runny, or watery stools, which may cause abdominal cramps and a sense of urgency.
The general cause of IBS isn’t yet known, but it is thought that stress might make symptoms worse. Whilst it isn’t likely to be the cause of the condition, there is the possibility that stress and anxiety could upset the gut.
Some people believe IBS is a result of a food intolerance, but there’s currently no evidence to support this. IBS is a completely separate condition to gluten or lactose intolerance, though it might help to keep a food diary to see if there are any specific triggers that worsen your IBS.
What are the symptoms of IBS?
People that live with irritable bowel syndrome don’t always have the same experience. There are several different types of the condition depending on your main symptom:
- D-IBS: This type of IBS is classified by the main symptom being diarrhoea
- C-IBS: This is determined by the main symptom being constipation
- A-IBS: Also known as M-IBS, this type of the condition means that you experience both constipation and diarrhoea
However, symptoms of IBS aren’t as simple as just experiencing troublesome bowel habits, you may also experience some or all of the following:
- Increased flatulence
- Passing mucus from the anus
- Problems peeing (urgency and frequency)
- Abdominal cramps
- Abdominal pan
Please be aware that IBS doesn’t cause colonic bleeding, so if you’re experiencing this symptom alongside troublesome bowel habits, see your GP as this could be an indicator of another condition.
How is IBS diagnosed?
Whilst no blood test can detect whether you have IBS or not, the symptoms can mimic other conditions, so your GP may refer you for a blood test anyway to rule out things like coeliac disease, or they may request a stool sample to check for inflammatory bowel disease (not the same as IBS).
IBS is actually diagnosed by the Rome IV criteria, which is a list of general common symptoms associated with IBS which are as follows:
Recurrent abdominal pain, on average, at least 1 day/week in the last 3 months, is associated with two or more of the following criteria:
- Related to defecation
- Associated with a change in frequency of stool
- Associated with a change in form (appearance) of stool
To be classified as having IBS, you must identify with 2 or more of the criteria. If you’re then diagnosed with the condition, your GP may find out which type you have by comparing your symptoms with the Bristol stool chart to determine whether you have the D, C, or A type of IBS.
Is there a cure for IBS?
Unfortunately, not, so IBS is often a chronic or even lifelong condition. However, there are medications out there that can treat the symptoms.
- Mebeverine: Mebeverine is often used to treat IBS as it relaxes the muscles in the gut, making it easier for the digestive system to work as normal and alleviating bothersome symptoms.
Some healthcare professionals suggest complementary treatments such as stress management to reduce the impact that tense emotions might have on your digestive system.
There are also some lifestyle changes you can make to try and lessen the impact that IBS has on you. It’s been suggested that avoiding fatty and spicy foods might improve some of the symptoms, as well as changing the way you eat. For example, not eating on the go, late at night, or whilst stressed or tense, as it’s thought that this might upset your already sensitive gut.
Many doctors are recommending that patients with IBS trial the FODMAP diet to see if this helps at all. The FODMAP diet comes from the idea that certain foods create more of a build-up of gas and liquid in the intestines, causing abdominal pain and cramps, so avoiding these foods may help to alleviate IBS symptoms. Some people find success by following this diet, but don’t be disheartened if you struggle with it, as other treatments are available.
Can IBS cause other, more serious conditions?
No. There’s no evidence to suggest that having IBS will lead to any other conditions such as colitis, IBD, or bowel cancer. You shouldn’t need to be screened for these conditions any more than anyone else unless you have other underlying health problems that might cause them.