Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a disorder that affects the large intestine (colon).


IBS is a functional disorder, meaning that the bowel does not work, or function as per normal. IBS more commonly affects women than men.

IBS is not life-threatening despite its uncomfortable signs and symptoms. IBS does not cause permanent damage to your colon nor does it develop into cancer.

IBS Causes and Risk Factors

The exact IBS causes are not known. People with IBS appear to have extra sensitive muscles and nerves in the bowel. These muscles may contract too much when you eat causing abdominal cramps. In some cases of IBS, food may be forced through your bowel more quickly, causing diarrhoea during or shortly after a meal. In others, food passes slowly through the bowel causing hard stools and constipation.

IBS can affect people of any age. However, you are more likely to have IBS if you are young, and have a family history of IBS. IBS symptoms can be triggered or worsened during periods of stress or menses. Many people find that their IBS symptoms worsen when they eat certain foods but this varies between individuals.

IBS Signs and Symptoms

The IBS signs and symptoms can vary widely from person to person. Some may experience only mild symptoms whereas for others the problem can be disabling.

Since the IBS symptoms can be similar to those of other serious conditions such as colon cancer, it is best to see your doctor if you have a persistent change in your bowel habits.

The most common IBS symptoms are:

  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • Diarrhoea or constipation sometimes alternating between the two

Other IBS symptoms are:

  • A bloated feeling / abdominal distension
  • Mucus in the stool
  • A sense of incomplete bowel movement

Despite these uncomfortable signs and symptoms, IBS is not life-threatening. There is no permanent damage to your colon nor does it lead to colon cancer.

IBS Complications

The symptoms of IBS can affect your overall quality of life. People with IBS may avoid social engagements, and may sometimes also feel depressed.

Other IBS complications include worsening of piles due to long standing constipation and malnourishment due to avoidance of certain foods.

IBS Diagnosis

The doctor may suspect that you have IBS if your changes in bowel habits have persisted for certain duration of time. Some tests may also be done to make sure that you do not have any other health problems that cause the same symptoms.

IBS is diagnosed by its signs and symptoms after confirming the absence of other diseases such as colon cancer, inflammatory bowel disease and other infective causes. Specific symptoms, called the Rome criteria, can be used to make a more accurate diagnosis.

In addition to a physical exam and some blood tests, a colonoscopy is done. For this, a thin, long flexible lighted tube is inserted into the rectum and slowly guided up to view the inside of your colon. In some cases, a short, flexible lighted tube is used to view the lower part of the colon. Computerised Tomography (CT) scans of your abdomen and pelvis may also be done to rule out other diseases.

IBS Treatment

IBS has no cure. You can control IBS symptoms by managing your diet, lifestyle and stress. The treatment for IBS focuses on treatment of symptoms.

The doctor may prescribe some medications to help you with some of your IBS symptoms. Some of these medications may include laxatives for constipation, antidiarrhoeals for diarrhoea and antispasmodics or pain killers to control abdominal spasms and pain respectively.

Keeping stress in check by meditation and regular exercise may also help to reduce the trigger for IBS symptoms. Be close to your family and friends they can provide support and encouragement.

There are no foods that are beneficial to all IBS sufferers. Most people can control their IBS symptoms by making customised changes to their diet. These diet changes include:

  • Avoid certain foods that may make IBS worse in some such as alcohol, fatty foods, chocolate, caffeinated drinks like coffee and carbonated drinks like soda.
  • Eat food with fibre such as fruits and vegetables to avoid constipation.
  • Eat four to five small meals a day as large meals can cause cramping and diarrhoea for those affected by IBS.

You may have to try a few things to see what works best for you. Your doctor can help you plan the right combination of medicines, diet and support to control IBS symptoms.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

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