Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

IBS is a common problem affecting about 20% of the Australian population. It is more common in women and often presents in people in their late teens or early twenties. It causes people with the syndrome to have sensitive bowels.

What are the symptoms of IBS?

The main symptoms are:

  • Abdominal discomfort or pain that can be relieved by opening bowels
  • Bloating
  • Chronic diarrhoea, constipation or both
  • Other symptoms include whitish mucus in the stool, the feeling of incomplete bowel emptying, nausea

Although IBS can be disruptive to a person’s lifestyle and impair their quality of life, it does not cause damage to the bowels.

What symptoms are not caused by IBS?

  • Bleeding with bowel motions
  • Weight loss
  • Fever
  • Severe diarrhoea at night

If you have any of these symptoms, speak to your doctor as further investigations may be necessary.

What Causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

The exact cause of IBS is not known. The symptoms are likely to be due to increased sensitivity to the function of the bowel. This could cause abnormal contractions of the bowel wall muscle which then leads to discomfort.

There are certain factors that can ‘trigger’ attacks of IBS in susceptible individuals such as:

  • An episode of gastroenteritis (post-infectious IBS)
  • Food intolerances such as lactose, fructose, sorbitol, gluten
  • General diet - a diet which lacks fibre can exacerbate constipation predominant IBS
  • Stress
  • Medications such as antibiotics, antacids and painkillers can alter a person’s bowel habits
  • Hormones - women often notice an exacerbation of symptoms prior to menstruation

Diagnosis & Treatment

How is IBS diagnosed?

If your symptoms are typical, you may not need further testing. However your doctor may want to perform other tests to exclude other diseases such as coeliac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s diseaseulcerative colitis, diverticular disease or colon polyps, if the symptoms are not entirely typical.

Further tests may include a blood tests, stool tests, a gastroscopy and/or colonoscopy.

How is IBS treated?

There is no cure for IBS but the symptoms can be managed. Different treatments are used to target the different spectrum of symptoms that patient with IBS can have. Avoidance of known ‘triggers’ may help immensely. Healthy eating, a regular routine, adequate sleep and exercise are also important for overall gut health. Some medication can offer relief of symptoms when taken. These include:

    • Anti-diarrhoeal agents in those with diarrhoea as a prominent symptom
    • Laxatives and fibre supplements in those with constipation
    • Antispasmodic agents
    • Antidepressant medications are sometimes used to reduce pain and sensitivity of the bowel
    • A low FODMAP diet can also be very useful in reducing symptoms in some people.

Further Information

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