Irritable Bowel Syndrome (or IBS for short) is a functional disorder of the gut, meaning that there are problems in the functioning, but not the structure, of the gut. The disorder is common, thought to be experienced by 1 in 5 people, and is more prevalent in women than men. While it can affect anyone at any age, it first develops particularly commonly during teenage and young adult years (15-40 years of age). The causes of Irritable Bowel Syndrome are unknown. One suggestion is that the bowels of sufferers are more sensitive than those without the disorder, which sets off reactions to cause the symptoms. A diet containing too much spicy or rich food, too much fat, or too much or little fibre may be responsible. Experiencing feelings of stress, depression or anxiety may also trigger symptoms. Overactive contractions in the gut are blamed for causing diarrhoea due to the stomach contents passing too quickly through. Slow activity on the other hand can cause constipation. However, as yet a primary cause has yet to be identified.
Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome vary hugely from person to person, and while some experience mild symptoms, others live with more prolonged and painful symptoms. Most people find that their symptoms fluctuate, and only appear from time to time when they flare up, often for 2-4 days. Following this the symptoms die down or disappear. The most common Irritable Bowel Syndrome signs and symptoms are as follows.
Abdominal Pain and Cramping – Often described as “spasms”, cramps occur at variable points in the abdomen, and with a variety of pain experienced. The cramps are often more painful when experienced alongside constipation. Cramps can come and go, and are often relieved by passing stools or wind. The length of the pain is variable from person to person. Women may find that this symptom relates to their menstrual cycle.
Diarrhoea/Constipation – Associated with the discomfort of abdominal cramps, Irritable Bowel Syndrome commonly comes with changes to the body’s stools. While roughly a third of people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome experience bouts of diarrhoea, another third experience constipation. For the remaining third of people diarrhoea and constipation alternate. The consistency of stools has also been found to alter; for some people stools become watery, for others they become smaller and like pellets. Mucus may also be mixed with the stools. Many people experience an urgency to use to toilet, for some particularly in the morning after waking up. Often reported is the feeling of not quite emptying the bowels after using the toilet. Although rare, incontinence has been known to occur as a result of the syndrome.
Bloating – The abdomen can experience bloating or swelling, which may be accompanied by rumbling noises. The abdomen area is also prone to feeling tender as a result.
Wind – Those with Irritable Bowel Syndrome may find that they pass more wind than usual, and often an increase in burping is noted.
Further Irritable Bowel Syndrome signs and symptoms are often found in different parts of body from the gut, and can include the following: Pain in the lower back, muscles and joints; tiredness, often constantly; nausea (although vomiting is rare); headaches; heartburn; an urgent need to urinate frequently (known as associated irritable bladder), feeling full quickly after eating, psychological symptoms including depression and anxiety, lethargy, sleep disturbances, and bad breath. Importantly, the passing of blood in stools is not a symptom of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and if experienced a doctor should be told.