It is estimated that one in five Australians currently suffer from the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a chronic disorder in which the normal rhythmic movement and function of the bowel become disturbed. As a result, sufferers can feel abdominal pain, bloating, and excessive gas. Patients with the syndrome can also have difficulty in going to the toilet as they can become constipated, or on other days have urgent and very loose diarrhoea (BetterHealth, 2017).
It is unknown how and why some people get IBS. However, it is understood that stress can worsen the condition. Patients who have family members with gastrointestinal conditions are more likely to develop IBS. A combination of several factors is thought to be involved in the onset of IBS such as;
- The digestive system being unable to handle certain foods.
- Extra sensitive nerves within the bowel.
- An alteration in hormones and neurotransmitters which act on the bowel.
- Changes in the type and number of normal bacteria within the small intestine.
Symptoms and Triggers of IBS
Patients with IBS may present with the following symptoms;
- Cramping and bloating in the lower abdomen.
- Pain in the abdomen which is relieved once the patient has passed wind or been to the toilet.
- Diarrhoea – having to go to the toilet regularly and urgently to pass loose stools.
- Constipation – being unable to go to the toilet often, or small and hard stools which are difficult to pass.
- An irregular and alternating pattern of diarrhoea and constipation.
- Mucus present in the stool
Some patients find that certain factors can trigger symptoms, or make symptoms worse. Some triggers include;
- Certain foods and drinks. Although each patient may have different triggers, sugary foods, milk, and alcohol are recognised to create problems
- Consuming too much food too fast
- High levels of stress
- Menstruation – some women find their IBS symptoms worsen during their period
Diagnosing and Managing IBS
Before a doctor can make a formal diagnosis of IBS, they will require the patient to share a detailed description of their symptoms, how often they are affected, and any factors that can improve or worsen their symptoms. The symptoms of IBS can present in other gastrointestinal conditions, so if there is any uncertainty about whether the patient has a more serious underlying condition the doctor can order further tests. Other tests can include blood tests, stool sample tests, a colonoscopy or a sigmoidoscopy.
Currently there is no cure for IBS; however, there are some medications and lifestyle modifications which can help improve and relieve symptoms of IBS. The following self-care measures are recommended for IBS patients;
- Stress-management techniques such as yoga and breathing exercises
- Exercise, as being active can aid and promote better digestion
- Eat a well-balanced diet that includes plenty of water and fibre.
- Eat regularly, but small meals instead of one or two large meals a day
- Keep a food diary, so that the patient is aware of any triggers to their IBS
Medications can be prescribed to patients to help them manage cramping, abdominal pain, diarrhoea and constipation. Medication should only be taken as and when it is suggested by the doctor, instead of continuously.
To learn more about IBS, we encourage you to speak to your doctor.