What is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?
The 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
- 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.
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.|
|Keep an eye on your fluid intake||
|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.
Last updated 20 July 2017 — Last reviewed 15 January 2014
** Currently under review **
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.