Irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome affects up to 15% of the adult population at any one time. It is likely that many more people experience it at some point in their lives as symptoms are often intermittent.

Symptoms include abdominal pain which can vary from mild and infrequent, to severe enough to cause sweating and faintness. The pain can occur anywhere between the nipples and groin, front or back. It can be described as sharp or "squeezy" (colic). It is often relieved by opening your bowels although sometimes it can be aggravated by going to the toilet. During episodes of pain, your bowel habit may change with the stool becoming looser and/or more frequent. However, constipation can also be a symptom and can alternate with diarrhoea or more frequent bowel action.

Bloating which can worsen as the day goes on, is a common feature and can cause a lot of discomfort. There can also be a sense of fullness in your rectum-as if you havenít managed to get everything out, which can create a constant desire to go to the loo. Sometimes you may pass mucus (slimy material) instead of, or together with your stools.

Symptoms arise from the intestine and whilst they cause a lot of discomfort, there is no active disease process to cause permanent damage. This is what distinguishes it from the inflammatory conditions such as colitis, either ulcerative colitis or Crohns disease.

We donít really understand why this all arises, but it seems as if your gut is abnormally sensitive, producing increased irregular activity, which in turn causes spasm and pain. It may be provoked by an attack of food poisoning but more often the cause is not obvious. Stress seems to be a common aggravating factor. Emotion commonly affects our guts and some people may be particularly prone to this - hence the phrase "gut feeling".

What can you do?
Increasing the fibre content in your diet can help even if you get symptoms of diarrhoea. Make your diet healthier by increasing the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables, wholemeal grains and reduce the amount of refined sugar. Eat regularly and try not to rush your meals. Drink plenty and increase the amount of water that you drink. Take regular exercise, even if only a short walk every day. Look at ways you might reduce the stress in your life and try to learn some relaxation techniques.

What can your doctor do?
He or she can make sure that your symptoms are due to irritable bowel and nothing more serious. Tell your doctor straight away if you pass blood, lose weight, start vomiting, or have more persistent diarrhoea/pain or if you feel that your symptoms have significantly changed.

You may be prescribed drugs to reduce the amount of spasm (eg mebeverine or peppermint oil). These can help to control the pain.

Ispaghula preparations (Fybogel) can be a useful way of putting fibre into your diet without causing additional bloating because it is a soluble form of fibre. It can also be used if you suffer with diarrhoea. Sometimes antidiarrhoeal drugs may be appropriate.

Learn to live with your IBS and recognise the factors that aggravate your symptoms. It is important that you are reassured that the symptoms are not due to anything more serious, and that it is very common. This in itself can be a way of reducing stress. Irritable bowel syndrome does not lead to more serious conditions such as colitis or cancer.

Further information

Irritable Bowel Syndrome Network

This article published on
01 July 2005

Next review date 7/1/2013


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