Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Last updated 13 February 2017 — Last reviewed 15 January 2014

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is when the bowel becomes sensitive, contracts unevenly and causes pain and bloating. The symptoms of IBS are discussed along with helpful suggestions to manage IBS.

What is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

Spasms contract the bowelThe bowel is a muscular tube several metres long and it should have nice even contractions along its length to move the food and air along the digestive tract. In IBS, it is thought the muscle wall of the bowel becomes overly sensitive and contracts unevenly, resulting in pain and bloating. In some people, symptoms of IBS can occur after an episode of infection in the bowel. In some people, IBS is closely linked to stress and tension in the body and mind.

Symptoms of IBS

The symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) include:

  • abdominal pain  – which often improves after having a bowel motion
  • bloating
  • constipation
  • diarrhoea
  • alternating constipation and diarrhoea
  • wind (flatulence)

Usually it is women who suffer these symptoms, often from their early teen years. One in five people have symptoms of IBS at some time in their lives.

Symptoms that need follow up

Some women think that changes to bowel habits are because of their IBS.  It is important to distinguish between what is IBS and what symptoms are potentially more dangerous to your health. IBS does not cause:

  • bleeding from the bowel – bleeding may occur as bright red blood on the toilet paper or a black colour to the stools, but it is not due to IBS and the reason needs to be investigated
  • extreme diarrhoea (not common)
  • mucous (not common)
  • weight loss

IBS is usually present from teens or early 20s and it is rare for it to start in later life. If anything seems unusual, see a doctor.

Diagnosis

There is no specific test for IBS so if you have some of the symptoms of IBS, you should see your doctor to exclude other conditions.

Management & treatment

The cause of IBS is not known and treatment is usually based on diet and lifestyle, but understanding the condition and reducing physical and emotional stress can make a big difference.

The following suggestions might be helpful in managing the symptoms of IBS:

Reduce stress Stress can aggravate IBS so you may need to think about what is causing you stress and try strategies to help.
Reduce bowel spasm Reducing bowel contractions with medications can help ease spasm in the bowel muscle. Talk to your doctor about which medication may be helpful for occasional use.
Treat constipation

Try:

  • increasing fibre in your diet
  • including seeds in your diet such as pumpkin, flax, sunflower
  • natural laxatives – but keep your use to a minimum
Treat diarrhoea
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Avoid foods that aggravate your symptoms. You can identify and manage these by:
    • keeping a food diary
    • seeing a dietitian
  • If severe, anti-diarrhoea medication may be needed
Keep an eye on your fluid intake
  • Drink 6-8 glasses of water per day (more if the weather is hot or if you are exercising ) – not drinking enough water makes stools hard, dry and difficult to pass, which increases the strain on the pelvic floor muscles
  • Cut down on caffeinated drinks, fizzy drinks and alcohol as they worsen incontinence
Physical activity Being active can help to relieve stress and keep your bowel motions regular.

Although IBS can cause significant symptoms, it does not lead to any serious illness. It is not linked to bowel cancer or any bowel disease. Having a good understanding of IBS can make you feel more confident in managing the symptoms.

This web page is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your health practitioner. The information above is based on current medical knowledge, evidence and practice as at January 2014.

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