One of the most common symptoms that affects the gastrointestinal tract is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Dr Joe Kosterich talks about IBS, including its symptoms, how to know whether you have it, who gets it, what causes it, how serious it is, and what to do about it.
Hi, I’m Dr Joe.
This is a condition where the name almost says it all: the bowel does tend to be easily irritated and is, if you like, irritable. The symptoms that people get with Irritable Bowel Syndrome are diarrhoea or loose stools, people may get bloating, cramping in the gut, sometimes nausea or discomfort. Those are the commonest symptoms. They generally persist over a period of time but they won’t necessarily be there everyday. People may have symptoms for a few days, maybe nothing for 70 days, or weeks or even months and then may get them again.
There is no specific test for Irritable Bowel and that’s why people sometimes scratch their heads and say “how do I know if I have this or not?” And, to be quite upfront, it is a condition that is diagnosed on symptoms and also the absence of other conditions. So, in terms of getting something like this sorted out, part of the process is not so much about testing for Irritable Bowel because, as we’ve said, you can’t do that, but ruling out other causes of diarrhea. For example, if you have inflammatory bowel conditions causing you gut symptoms, then it’s not Irritable Bowel. If you have gastroenteritis, then again it is not Irritable Bowel.
Once some of these conditions are excluded, we’re left with what is just best described as Irritable Bowel Syndrome. This doesn’t mean that if you’ve had diarrhoea and cramps for a few days that you have it. And that is one thing that is important, that you don’t necessarily just stick a label on yourself and decide that you’ve got this illness or condition.
Now, to some extent, everybody can have a gut that is a bit irritable on a given day. I think anybody’s who’s ever sat uni exams will know that they can get some griping in the tummy and sometimes need to make an extra trip or two to the toilet. And anybody who maybe had a dodgy take-away at times will know what it’s like to have a gut that doesn’t necessarily appreciate what you’ve given it that day.
These are one-offs but we can also see that the gut does respond to what’s going on in your life. And it’s interesting because there’s some work going on at the moment looking at the connections between the brain and the gut, and some people even trying to count up the number of neurons in the gut versus the number of neurons in the brain. When we think about terms like “go with your gut”, “gut feelings”, there’s certainly a connection between our gut, our intestinal tract, and our emotions and our thoughts.
But that’s a bit of a digression.
With Irritable Bowel Syndrome: first and foremost, it’s not serious. It can be a nuisance, and in very rare instances can be a little bit debilitating. But for the vast majority it’s something you don’t like to have but it won’t really interfere with you. It is not fatal, nobody’s ever died of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. That’s the good news.
The not-so-good news is that there’s no specific cure, people may be stuck with it to a greater or lesser degree for an extended period of time, but not necessarily everyday, as we said, people mostly will get symptoms from time to time. And it may be in relation to specific triggers. If you are able to identify particular foods or particular circumstances where the gut tends to react then obviously it’s helpful to try to avoid those if you can.
Warning signs that it might not be Irritable Bowel: certainly bleeding from the gut, pain that is more severe rather than just a nuisance, a fever would be a pointer against Irritable Bowel, and if you’re not sure, as we said before, it’s certainly worth going along and seeing your doctor.
Treatment for Irritable Bowel: unfortunately, there’s nothing specific. There are some anti-spasmodic tablets, sometimes anti-diarrhoeal medication that can be used, they’re generally not recommended for continuous use though, and again fortunately the symptoms are usually not continuous.
Dietary change or adjustment is often recommended and there’s no one-size-fits-all diet to follow. In most instances, people will be advised to make sure they have plenty of fiber in the diet to give the bowel something solid to work with, but other than that, other than what agrees or disagrees with your system, there’s no specific Irritable Bowel diet.
To sum up, Irritable Bowel Syndrome: a very common condition, it’s not a harmful condition, and most people will learn to live with it if not happily then at least in a state of “truce”. Go along and see you doctor for a check rather than just assuming that your symptoms may be Irritable Bowel. Be aware that simple things may trigger it off and if you can find those then obviously avoid them, and by and large whilst a nuisance at times it’s not going to either shorten your life or cause you major illness.
More information on Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)