IBS is a long-term condition that affects the digestive system.
It can cause symptoms such as stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and or constipation.
These symptoms vary between different people and affect some people more severely than others. They tend to come and go in periods lasting a few days to a few months at a time. Symptoms can become worse during times of stress or after eating certain foods.
IBS is thought to affect up to one in five people at some point in their life, and it usually first develops when a person is between 20 and 30 years of age. Around twice as many women are affected as men.
IBS can cause symptoms such as stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and/or constipation. The symptoms can vary from one individual to another. They can also get better or worse at different periods in peoples life.
The symptoms of IBS can resemble those of other conditions so it is important to see a doctor if you develop stomach cramps, bloating or a change in your bowels. Blood tests are expected to be normal in a person with IBS but they are often necessary to exclude other conditions such as coeliac disease and inflammatory bowel disease.
Symptoms such as weight loss, fever and blood in the stool are NOT symptoms of IBS and it is very important to tell your doctor if you have any of these. It is unusual for somebody over the age of 50 to first develop the symptoms of IBS, so again see your doctor if you have any new symptoms you are concerned about.
The exact cause of IBS is unknown, but most experts think that it is related to increased sensitivity of the gut and problems digesting food. For some people IBS can start after an infection of their gut.
Your body usually moves food through your digestive system by squeezing and relaxing the muscles of the intestines in a rhythmic way. However, in IBS it's thought that this process is altered, resulting in food moving through your digestive system either too quickly or too slowly. If food moves through your digestive system too quickly it causes diarrhoea, because your digestive system does not have enough time to absorb water from the food. If food moves through your digestive system too slowly it causes constipation, as too much water is absorbed, making your stools hard and difficult to pass.
Psychological factors such as stress can commonly cause IBS symptoms. However, this does not mean that IBS is "all in the mind", because symptoms are very real. Unpleasant emotional states such as stress and anxiety can trigger chemical changes that affect the normal workings of the digestive system.
This does not just happen in people with IBS. Many people who have never had IBS before can have a sudden change in their bowels when faced with a stressful situation, such as an important exam or interview.
There is no cure for IBS. However with modifying dietary and lifestyle factors we aim to control or limit the symptoms of IBS.
Tips to improve symptoms of IBS
Sometimes more specialist diets may be recommended to treat the symptoms of IBS. Commonly a FODMAP diet is advised. FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols. These are resistant types of carbohydrate that are not easily broken down in the gut. For IBS suffers, these can cause pain, bloating and wind. As this diet can restrict a lot of foods e.g. some fruits and vegetables, animal milk, wheat products and beans, if is important that it is done with the correct supervision so that nutritional deficiencies do not occur.
Some medications may be prescribed to treat the symptoms. Medication such as buscopan and mebeverine help to relax the gut walls and are often used to treat cramping.
Anti-diarrhoea medications may help those people who suffer for IBS related diarrhoea. Loperamide is commonly used. This works by slowing the movement of food through the gut.
Laxatives are used in those people who suffer from constipation. A bulk forming laxative is usually whats recommended. Always start at a low dose, and increase slowly until your symptoms are under control. Ensure you are drinking plenty of water with these types of medications.
For some people psychological therapies can be helpful. These therapies can teach you techniques to help you control your condition better. Cognitive behavioral therapy is often used and there is good evidence to show that this can be beneficial for some people.