Irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common condition of the digestive system. It can cause bouts of stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation. 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.

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.

The most common symptoms of IBS are:

  • Abdominal pain and cramping – often relieved by emptying your bowels
  • A change in your bowel habits – such as diarrhoea, constipation, or sometimes both
  • Bloating and swelling of your abdomen
  • Excessive wind (flatulence)
  • An urgent need to go to the toilet
  • A feeling that you need to open your bowels even if you have just been to the toilet
  • A feeling you have not fully emptied your bowels
  • Passing mucus from your bottom

There are three main patterns of bowel symptoms in IBS. They are:

  • IBS with diarrhoea – when you have repeated bouts of diarrhoea
  • IBS with constipation – when you have repeated bouts of constipation
  • IBS mixed – when you have repeated bouts of diarrhoea and constipation

Most people have a flare-up of symptoms that lasts two to four days. After this time, the symptoms usually improve but do not disappear completely. Symptoms of IBS often have a significant impact on a person's day-to-day life. The pain, discomfort and inconvenience of IBS are very real and can have a deep psychological effect.

IBS is unpredictable. You may go for many months without any symptoms and then have a sudden flare-up. Certain foods and drinks can trigger the symptoms of IBS. Triggers vary from person to person, but the most common ones include:

  • Alcohol
  • Fizzy drinks
  • Chocolate
  • Drinks that contain caffeine, such as tea, coffee or cola
  • Processed snacks, such as crisps and biscuits
  • Fatty food
  • Fried food

Stress is another common trigger of IBS symptoms. Therefore, finding ways to manage stressful situations is an important part of treating IBS.

There are a number of treatments that can help manage the symptoms of IBS, these include:

  • Medication prescribed by the GP
  • Hypnotherapy it has been shown to help some people with IBS reduce their symptoms of pain and discomfort.
  • Psychodynamic interpersonal therapy (PIT) is a type of talking treatment that has been beneficial in helping people with IBS.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is another type of talking treatment that can help with IBS.
  • Acupuncture
  • Dietary advice by a dietician on those foods they may or may not be suitable

* The contents of this condition is for information purposes only.