Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects the large intestine, causing a range of unpleasant symptoms including diarrhoea, constipation , abdominal pain and cramps, bloating and gas. It may also cause nausea, indigestion, tiredness, headaches and fatigue.
IBS is extremely common – believed to affect between 10 and 20% of the UK population – and occurs more frequently in women than in men.
Scientists are unable to pinpoint a precise cause of the condition.
Symptoms can vary from person to person and may even differ in the same individual from one flare up to the next.
The gut becomes highly sensitive and reactive in people with IBS.
This may be due to stressful or traumatic events or to an infection such as gastroenteritis.
IBS is a chronic (long-term, on-going) condition for which there is no cure, however the symptoms can be effectively managed.
Diagnosis of IBS
It is vital to get a proper diagnosis if you think you may have IBS as the condition shares similar symptoms with other more serious diseases so it’s important to rule these out before beginning treatment. Diagnosing the condition can be difficult as there is no single effective diagnostic test.
Your doctor is likely to ask you questions about your symptoms and your medical history and you may be given a physical examination. IBS is categorised either as: constipation-predominant, diarrhoea-predominant or mixed. If you have diarrhoea, you may be advised to have a test to exclude coeliac disease. Your doctor may ask you to keep a symptom diary to help identify a pattern which will aid how to manage the condition.
Certain symptoms may indicate a more serious condition, such as inflammatory bowel disease or bowel cancer. These include: bleeding from the bottom, unexplained weight loss, nausea or vomiting, anaemia and the onset of symptoms over the age of 50. If necessary you may be referred for tests which allow the doctor to look inside your bowel using a colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy. If you have abdominal pain you may be referred for a CT scan or X-ray.
IBS: Diet and lifestyle changes
If a diagnosis of IBS is confirmed, your doctor may suggest some simple changes to your diet and lifestyle in the first instance to help you manage the symptoms. Different approaches may work for different people so it is worth experimenting to see which is best for you. Among the changes we recommend to our patients are:
- Eat smaller, more frequent meals rather than larger meals.
- Drink at least four glasses of water a day.
- Increase your fibre intake by eating fruit, vegetables, whole grains and nuts.
- Avoid caffeine.
- Quit smoking.
- Limit your intake of dairy products.
- If you have diarrhoea, try avoiding gluten (wheat, barley and rye).
- Avoid foods that produce a lot of gas such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and carbonated drinks.
- Try stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, yoga or exercise.
- Try keeping a food and symptom diary so you can see which foods increase your symptoms.
- Get enough sleep.
While diet and lifestyle changes can be very effective in managing mild to moderate symptoms, you may also be offered other treatments, depending on your symptoms:
- Fibre supplements or laxatives may be recommended if you have constipation.
- If you have diarrhoea you may be given anti-diarrheal medication.
- Anticholinergic medication may be prescribed for painful bowel spasms and tricylic antidepressants may also be used to control pain.
- There are a number of medications available specifically for IBS. These work in a number of ways, including relaxing the colon and slowing the movement of waste through the lower bowel.
- Probiotics are helpful in restoring gut flora and maintaining a healthy balance of colonic bacteria. They can lead to reductions in symptoms of bloating and wind as well as maintaining a regular stool.
- FODMAP identification and exclusion is undertaken by dieticians to identify specific triggers. Certain foods high in fermentable sugars are excluded and then reintroduced in a controlled way and a diet plan is then personalised accordingly.
Contact us if you are concerned about IBS symptoms or would like further information, or advice.
Windsor Bowel Clinic are specialists in treating a full range of gastrointestinal disorders including IBS. Our specialist consultants will ensure prompt, accurate diagnosis after which we will discuss your treatment options.
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