Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common digestive-related disorder that affects the large intestines. It involves changes in frequency or form of bowel movements and lower abdominal pain. IBS affects approximately 6-18% of people globally and is triggered by a variety of causes. It can be short-term or long-term affecting you your entire life.
Common signs and symptoms
Abdominal pain and cramping
This is the most common symptom of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and a key factor in diagnosis. The pain usually occurs in the lower abdomen or the entire abdomen. It is less likely to occur only in the upper abdomen area. Pain typically decreases after a bowel movement.
Diarrhea-predominant IBS affects about one-third of the patients dealing with this digestive problem.
Constipation-predominant IBS affects about 50% of the people dealing with this digestive issue.
Alternating between constipation and diarrhoea
About 20% of patients report alternating between constipation and diarrhoea.
Gas and bloating
Altered digestion leads to more gas production which causes bloating which can be uncomfortable.
This is not referring to allergies but the fact that consuming certain foods triggers symptoms.
Fatigue and difficulty sleeping
Research shows that over half the people living with IBS report fatigue with 13% reporting poor sleep quality.
Anxiety and depression
It’s unclear whether IBS symptoms are an expression of mental illness or if they develop because of the stress of living with the illness.
Other symptoms include
- Changes in appetite
- Passing mucus in stool
- Problems peeing i.e., needing to pee often, sudden urges to pee and the feeling like you cannot fully empty your bladder.
- Bowel incontinence i.e., the inability to control bowel movements resulting in involuntary soiling i.e. accidental passing of stool
Types of IBS
This is where the person alternates between constipation and normal stool.
IBS-D (diarrhoea predominant)
The patient suffers from diarrhoea soon after getting up or after they eat something. It may sometimes be involuntary forcing them to make frequent urgent visits to the toilet.
IBS-A or IBS-M (alternating constipation and diarrhoea)
This is an erratic form characterized by at least one abnormal bowel movement in a day that may lead to constipation or diarrhoea. It’s a mixed bag in which nearly 25% of your bowel movements are hard or lumpy while another 25% are accompanied by runny stool.
IBS causes and risk factors
The precise cause of Irritable Bowel Syndrome is yet unknown but some factors appear to play a role in its flare-up.
Genetic factors: Family history of the disease increases the likelihood of developing it.
Nervous system: Abnormalities in the nerves can affect the digestive system.
Severe infection: IBS can develop after a severe bout of diarrhoea (gastroenteritis).
Gender: Women are twice as likely to develop IBS than men likely because of hormonal changes during menstruation.
Smoking: The symptoms are worse among people who smoke or are regularly exposed to second-hand smoke with nicotine being the major irritant.
Early life stress: People exposed to stressful events especially in childhood tend to have more symptoms. Frequent anxiety and stress even in adults increases your risk of developing it or inducing flare-ups.
Food intolerance: Any kind of food intolerance or allergy can lead to the onset of symptoms.
Oversensitivity: People with naturally oversensitive intestines are more prone to IBS.
Constipation: Any hindrance of the passage or movement of stool through the digestive tract can lay the groundwork for it.
Altered hormonal regulation: A spike in estrogen levels is associated with an increase in the severity of abdominal pain in patients.
When to see a doctor
You should see a doctor in order to rule out a more serious condition if your symptoms include
- Weight loss
- Diarrhoea at night
- Rectal bleeding
- Unexplained vomiting
- Difficulty swallowing
- Persistent pain that is not relieved by passing gas or a bowel movement
Treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome generally includes dietary changes, medication, psychotherapy, and occasionally alternative therapies.
Include reducing intake of caffeinated drinks, carbohydrates, and rich foods and instead consuming more fruits, vegetables, and fibre-rich foods which aid in digestion.
Includes muscle relaxants to relieve and prevent cramping, anti-diarrheal medication, laxatives, antibiotics, and low-dose anti-depressants for emotional stress.
To deal with the emotional stress from the past that may have preceded IBS or that has been compounded or triggered by the symptoms.
Certain probiotics, therapeutic massages, and acupuncture techniques have been helpful in managing the symptoms of IBS as well as including the anxiety and relieving the stress.
Often an integrated approach that combines these different treatment options works best for Irritable Bowel Syndrome.