Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

What is it?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is one of the most common gastrointestinal disorders, with up to 20% of the population suffering from it at some point in their life. It is found in both men and women, although it is more common in women, and it can affect people of any age, including children.

The Symptoms of IBS

The typical symptoms of IBS include either recurring diarrhoea or recurring constipation, and some patients also suffer from both diarrhoea and constipation at different times.

Additional symptoms can include stomach pain (which is sometimes relieved by a bowel movement), bloating, nausea, and wind. IBS can wax and wane, and patients may experience a few weeks or even a few months of good health before the symptoms return.

Different people experience different severities of IBS, ranging from mild symptoms to extremely painful and debilitating symptoms that interfere with every aspect of life. Sufferers often need the toilet urgently, which can be very embarrassing and cause problems at work and in everyday situations such as shopping. People with constipation can suffer just as much from pain, difficulty travelling and general discomfort.

Causes of IBS

The cause of IBS is still a mystery, although a large number of IBS sufferers can date their symptoms back to a particular event which may have caused long-term problems with their digestion, such as a bout of food poisoning or an abdominal surgery. Other people date their symptoms back to a long course of antibiotics, or a particularly stressful period in their lives. It’s not really known how these events trigger IBS.

Diagnosis of IBS

There is no specific medical test for IBS, and it is sometimes called a diagnosis of ‘exclusion’. This means that a doctor may rule out other bowel and stomach complaints such as coeliac disease or inflammatory bowel disease before giving a diagnosis of IBS.

Sometimes patients are given a colonoscopy, where a tiny camera is inserted into the intestines to look for abnormalities. The colonoscopy won’t detect any visible physical signs of IBS such as inflammation, although that doesn’t make the symptoms themselves any less real.

It is very important that patients do not try to self-diagnose IBS as it is impossible for a patient to tell the difference between IBS symptoms and bowel symptoms caused by other disorders.

The treatment of IBS

The first stage of IBS treatment may involve medications such as anti-spasmodics, which will relax the muscles in the gut walls, or perhaps a low dose of an anti-depressant, which can help to reduce the pain.

Fibre supplements such as Celevac or Normacol can help to add bulk to the stool, which can be helpful for both diarrhoea and constipation. Sufferers with diarrhoea sometimes use calcium carbonate tablets, and magnesium tablets can help deal with constipation.

A nutritionist can advise on ways to identify any particular food ‘triggers’ which may be setting off the symptoms, and also on whether there might be a food intolerance to something like gluten or lactose.

Hypnotherapy has proved very effective at treating IBS in clinical trials, and a special form called gut-directed hypnotherapy has been developed just for digestive problems.

IBS and anxiety

Although IBS is not a psychological disorder in itself, it can be closely linked to stress and anxiety because of the connection between the brain and the gut. Even people who don’t suffer from IBS sometimes find that they need the loo if they are very nervous, and this is a result of the so-called ‘brain-gut connection’.

This connection means that the digestive systems of IBS sufferers can be very sensitive to stress and anxiety. This is exacerbated by that fact that many sufferers have experienced a time when they desperately needed the loo but couldn’t get to one immediately. They may even have been incontinent in a very public place. Once this has happened, sufferers can become very anxious when they don’t have easy access to a toilet, and this anxiety creates extra sensitivity in the gut, and a vicious circle is established.

The information on this page was generously provided by IBS Tales, www.ibstales.com.

IBS Fact Sheet

To find out more information about IBS, click here to download a copy of our fact sheet.

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Personal experiences

Do you suffer from IBS and want to share your experience with other people? Post your personal experience in the comments box below where it will be sent to our moderator for approval. Many people find this part of the site very useful when trying to understand their disorder so your comments really do make a difference. Please note, all comments submitted to the Anxiety UK website may be used by Anxiety UK for (but not limited to) publicity and promotional material.

“Although IBS is pretty much chronic, and I will always have occasional flare-ups, I don’t have to let them control my life. I have learned that when I am going down the road, almost at my destination, and I feel that cramping, burning feeling that I am all too familiar with, I just take deep breaths and tell myself that I can do this. It’s going to be alright and I am stronger than this.”

Anne, Anxiety UK Member

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