Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is also sometimes known as “spastic colon” or “nervous colon”. It’s a common condition that affects some 15% of adults.
IBS is characterised by abdominal pain or cramping and a change in bowel habit (diarrhoea or constipation or both alternating). It is a chronic (long-term) condition that usually begins before the age of 50. IBS tends to present as short-term attacks lasting 1-3 days, and then an improvement, with the pattern repeating at variable intervals (several attacks per week or just a few attacks per year). IBS is twice as common in women as in men.
The cause of IBS is not known although poor-diet (a diet high in processed foods and low in fibre), bowel-bacteria imbalances, and food sensitivity, have all been suggested as at least partial causes. A particular group of foods, known as “FODMAPs” (a type of sugar ) have been shown to trigger or worsen IBS symptoms although FODMAPs are not considered an actual cause of IBS. Stress and or low-mood/depression have also been implicated as contributing causes. IBS is not a dangerous condition and it does not affect life expectancy.
A diagnosis of IBS is really a ‘diagnosis of exclusion’. When a person has suggestive symptoms, doctors will usually look to rule-out certain other serious conditions that can present similarly. Important conditions to exclude include Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohns Disease and Ulcerative Colitis), Colon cancer and Coeliac Disease (true gluten intolerance). If these, and some other, conditions have been excluded, a diagnosis of IBS is often entertained.
There is no cure for IBS. Treatment focuses on relieving symptoms and offering both education (nature of the condition), reassurance (it is not dangerous), and support (IBS can be hard to live with). Antidepressants have been used to improve pain-control and overall quality of life, in those with severe IBS. Dietary improvements and general healthy living are often advised.
IBS is a common and frustratingly difficult-to-treat condition, but more-happily it is not a dangerous one.