Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBS is the name doctors have given to a collection of otherwise unexplained symptoms relating to a disturbance of the colon or large intestine. It affects around a third of the population at some point in their lives and about one in ten people suffer symptoms severe enough to seek help from their GP.
The symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome may include:
Abdominal pain and spasms, often relieved by going to the toilet.
Diarrhoea, Constipation or an erratic bowel habit
Bloating or swelling of the abdomen.
Rumbling noises and excessive passage of wind.
Urgency (An urgent need to visit the toilet).Incontinence (If a toilet is not nearby).
Sharp pain felt low down inside the rectum.
Sensation of incomplete bowel movement.
When X-rays, blood tests, endoscopies and other diagnostic tests are carried out, the results do not reveal any obvious abnormality. For that reason IBS is often called 'a functional disorder' of the bowel; in other words, an disturbance in bowel function without any change in structure or obvious cause.
Symptoms frequently occur in other parts of the body. These may include; headaches, dizziness, backache, passing urine frequently, tiredness, muscle and joint pains, ringing in the ears, indigestion, belching, nausea, shortness of breath, anxiety and depression. A similar range of symptoms are reported by patients with other medically unexplained illnesses, such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia and Functional Dyspepsia, suggesting they all might all be expressions of an alteration in sensitivity or irritability affecting the mind and the body.
Food and Mood.
Stress can often affect the bowels, making them more sensitive and less tolerant of food.
Despite more research and public awareness of IBS, no cure has been found. Medical treatment may vary from advice on diet and relaxation to the use of anti-spasmodic drugs and low dose antidepressants. Some find help from counsellors or psychotherapists, some from practitioners of complementary medicine - such as acupuncturists or hypnotherapists. As many people with IBS feel isolated and on their own, one of the most effective ways of coping with IBS on a day-to-day basis is being able to talk about it and bring whatever maight be bothering them back to mind.
Who gets IBS?
The quick answer is 'we all do', though some people get it more severely than others. Our bowels are not always as regular as clockwork and bloating and abdominal pain are very common complaints. At any one time between 10% and 20% of people living in western countries fulfil the diagnostic criteria for IBS. In common with other medically unexplained illnesses, IBS is more frequently diagnosed in women compared with men, in young compared with old and in western countries compared with the developing world. It is commonly associated with emotional tension and is frequently triggered by life changes, difficult life situations or stressful life events.
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Top 10 Tips
Confirm the diagnosis. IBS can only be diagnosed by a qualified medical professional - please do not attempt to self diagnose - see your GP if you think you might have it. If you have a confirmed diagnosis, there is usually no need for further gastroenterological investigations, which can save you a lot of time waiting for tests that will probably not help.
But understand your illness. Self management is the key. The IBS Network provides the only web-delivered self management programme for IBS. By consulting this, you can have an informed discussion with your GP and make good choices in your own life.
Will I get cancer? IBS is a disorder of bowel function. There is no damage to your gut and It isn't going to kill you, nor will it increase your likelihood of developing cancer or other bowel conditions.
IBS is about life. Learn how your lifestyle and diet can affect your symptoms. Don't try to do too much. Look upon your gut as your alarm signal. If it goes off, slow down, relax, don't push through your symptoms, take a break. Talk about your problems. Work with your gut, not against it. Think food and mood!
Food. Don't go eliminating foods from your diet. Remember that when you have a flare up of IBS, your gut will be more sensitive and food will be a problem. Keep a diary, try and work out work foods are particularly troublesome. Fatty foods, high fibre foods, coffee and spices are often the culprits. You may gain some relief with a more bland diet. That's fine, but when things are better, do get back to a more balanced diet again. IBS does not have to be a life sentence and you do not need to go on hunger strike. Soluble fibre from rolled oats, bananas, beans is kinder to your gut than insoluble fibre such as bran or whole oats.
And Mood. When your IBS flares up, ask yourself why. People with IBS often get depressed, anxious and angry. And if you are angry, it will make your IBS worse. So just as anxiety and depression can change from moment to moment according to what is happening or what you are thinking; so can your sensitive gut. The trick is to learn to understand why. This will help you deal calmly and confidently with what is upsetting your gut and bring it back to mind, where it can communicated with others and dealt with.
Complementary therapies, such as relaxation, therapeutic massage, hypnotherapy, acupuncture, reflexology, recognise and treat the whole person and can be very beneficial, but check our advice first on our fact sheets and self management programme.
Probiotics can help to calm and regulate your bowels, but vary in their effectiveness. If after a months trial, one brand is not helpful, try another. Prebiotics are complex sugars that encourage the growth of your own natural probiotic bacteria.
Quackwatch. Be careful where you get your advice from. Many treatments on the internet claim to cure IBS. This is impossible. There is no magic cure for IBS, but you can learn to manage it and live a normal life. Be wary of quack cures and save your money.
The Last Taboo. The bowel and its functions are the last taboo - especially when it does not work properly. In an age when we can talk freely about most things, the act of going to the toilet is not 'polite'. The unwillingness of people to talk clearly and openly about their illness means they feel alienated from family and friends and do not always get the right care from their doctors. Do not be ashamed about discussing your symptoms with your doctor. They have heard far worse than anything you can tell them, and the more you tell them the better they will be able to help you. Talk openly about your symptoms. You'll be amzed how many other people have similar problems. You are not alone. Support and understanding from The IBS Network makes a real difference in understanding and living with your symptoms, overcoming anxiety, building self-confidence, and reducing isolation.
Supporting people living with irritable bowel syndrome