Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common condition of the digestive system. It can cause bouts of stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation.
The symptoms of IBS usually appear for the first time when a person is between 20 and 30 years of age. They tend to come and go in bouts, often during times of stress or after eating certain foods.
Symptoms vary between individuals and affect some people more severely than others. However, most people have either diarrhoea, constipation, or bouts of both. You may also have mucus in your stools.
You may find the painful stomach cramps of IBS ease after going to the toilet and opening your bowels.
What causes IBS?
The exact cause of IBS is unknown, but most experts agree it's related to an increased sensitivity of the entire gut, which can occasionally be linked to a prior food-related illness.
This may be caused by a change in your body's ability to move food through your digestive system, or may be due to you becoming more sensitive to pain from your gut.
Psychological factors such as stress may also play a part in IBS.
Read more about the causes of IBS.
When to see your GP
Visit your GP if you think you have IBS. They will want to rule out other illnesses, such as an infection, coeliac disease (a digestive condition where a person has an adverse reaction to gluten) or chronic inflammation of the gut.
They will ask about your symptoms and whether there is a pattern to them – for example, if they tend to come on when you are under more stress than usual or after eating certain foods. Your GP may suggest you keep a food diary to see whether your diet affects your symptoms.
Further tests will only be needed if you have certain "red flag" symptoms that indicate you may have another serious condition. These symptoms include:
- unexplained weight loss
- a swelling or lump in your abdomen or back passage (bottom)
- anaemia (a lack of red blood cells)
Read more about how IBS is diagnosed.
There is no cure for IBS, but the symptoms can be managed by making changes to your diet and lifestyle.
Medication is sometimes prescribed for IBS. In many cases, being reassured by your GP can often help control IBS symptoms.
Although the symptoms of IBS can be troublesome, the condition does not pose a serious threat to your health. For example, it will not increase your chances of developing cancer or other bowel-related conditions.
IBS is unpredictable. You may go for many months without any symptoms and then have a sudden flare-up. It can also take many months for your symptoms to settle down.
IBS can be painful and debilitating, and can have a negative impact on your quality of life. However, with appropriate treatment you should be able to live a normal, full and active life.
Read more about treating IBS.
Living with IBS
The pain, discomfort and inconvenience of IBS can sometimes affect a person psychologically.
It is estimated that three out of four people with IBS will have at least one bout of depression, and just over half will develop generalised anxiety disorder (a condition that can cause overwhelming feelings of anxiety, fear and dread).
Speak to your GP if you have feelings of depression or anxiety and they are affecting your daily life.
These types of conditions rarely improve without treatment, and your GP will be able to recommend treatments such as antidepressants or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Read more about the psychological effects of IBS.