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Irritable Bowel

What is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a long-term (chronic) gastrointestinal condition. In other words, it is a condition that affects the digestive system.

The main symptoms of IBS are abdominal pain and discomfort, episodes of constipation and/or diarrhoea, and bloating of the abdomen.

The symptoms of IBS can fluctuate. There may be times when your symptoms are particularly troublesome, and times when you experience no symptoms at all.

Although IBS poses no serious threat to health, it can have an adverse effect on a person's quality of life. The exact causes of IBS are unknown.


How common is IBS?

IBS is one of the most common gastrointestinal conditions. It is estimated that 10-20% of the UK 's population are affected by IBS at any one time, although this figure may be higher because many people with the condition do not report their symptoms to their GP.

IBS is twice as common in women as it is in men. The condition normally develops in people who are between 20-30 years of age, but it can affect people of any age.

While there is no cure for IBS, the symptoms can be controlled by using lifestyle changes and medicine.



The most common symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are:

The symptoms of IBS are usually worse after eating. Most people will experience a 'flare-up' of symptoms, lasting between 2-4 days, after which the symptoms improve, or disappear altogether.

For reasons that are not completely understood, IBS can also cause symptoms in other parts of your body, as well as in your bowel. These symptoms include:

Due to the pain, discomfort and embarrassment that are sometimes associated with IBS, some people also experience feelings of anxiety and depression.



The exact cause of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is unknown. However, most experts believe that it may be caused by a number of interrelated factors. Possible factors include:


Psychological factors in IBS

There is a great deal of evidence that psychological factors play an important role in IBS. This is not to suggest that IBS is 'all in the mind' because the symptoms people experience are very real.

There is a great deal of evidence that psychological factors play an important role in IBS. This is not to suggest that IBS is 'all in the mind' because the symptoms people experience are very real.

Changes in emotional states, such as stress, or depression, often cause a flare-up of symptoms. IBS is also more common in people who have experienced a previous traumatic experience.

How you think and feel can have an important effect on your body. When you are feeling stressed, or depressed, your body undergoes chemical changes and it is possible that these changes can affect how your digestive system works, making the symptoms of IBS worse.

This is why psychological treatments, such as relaxation therapy, are often effective in helping to control the symptoms of IBS.



If you have the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), your GP will usually recommend that you undergo a blood test in order that other conditions that cause similar symptoms, such as infection, or Coeliac disease (a stomach condition caused by gluten intolerance) can be ruled out.

GPs can usually confidently diagnose IBS by asking you about your symptoms.

Your GP will ask you whether you have had any of the following symptoms that have lasted for at least six months:

Your GP will be looking for some specific symptoms that are needed for a positive diagnosis of IBS. These are either:

For IBS to be diagnosed, you will also need to have at least two of the following symptoms:


When further tests are required

Further testing is usually only required when you have specific symptoms, or signs, that suggest that you may have a more serious condition than IBS. These symptoms include:

Further testing may also be recommended if you have a family history of bowel, or ovarian, cancer, or if you are over 60 years of age and you have experienced a change in your bowel habits that has lasted more than six weeks.