Factsheet: Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

It's estimated that one third of the population is at one time or other affected by Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). This factsheet gives advice and information on what can be a painful and distressing condition.


What is IBS?

IBS is a disorder of the intestinal motor function and one of the commonest conditions seen by gastroenterologists. Essentially, the process known as peristalsis (the channelling of food throughout the gut) becomes uncoordinated, resulting in a range of different symptoms from heartburn to urgent motions. A cure remains to be found.

Who is most likely to suffer from IBS?

The symptoms of IBS most commonly start in late teenage years or early adulthood. Women are affected more often than men.

What are the symptoms of IBS?

IBS can affect any part of the gut from the mouth to the anus, so the symptoms of IBS are incredibly diverse.

In the oesophagus symptoms include heartburn, painful swallowing but food passes easily, sticking of food and a golf ball-like sensation in the throat.

In the stomach symptoms include abdominal bloating, feeling full after small meals and symptoms suggestive of a stomach ulcer.

In the bowel symptoms include:

  • Pain and discomfort ranging from mild to acute occurring in different parts of the abdomen

  • Temporary bloating of the abdomen

  • Frequent passing of wind

  • Variable and erratic motions

  • Stool texture may change to impacted, watery (diarrhoea) or mucus-like

  • Sufferer feels an urgent need to get to the toilet quickly

Other symptoms can occur and include depressive symptoms (affecting one third of sufferers), nausea, headaches, poor appetite, tiredness, backache, muscle pains and the need to pass urine more frequently. Symptoms may pass quickly or last for long periods, with flare-ups from time to time. Symptoms may also vary over time.

What causes irritable bowel syndrome?

The causes of IBS aren't entirely clear however half of all sufferers will date the onset of symptoms to a major life change such as moving house, changing job or a bereavement. One in six cases of IBS follows a bout of gastroenteritis. In the remainder of cases, the trigger factor remains unidentified.

What symptoms should not be ascribed to IBS?

IBS can mimic many other disorders of the gut so see your doctor if you experience any of the following:

• Abdominal bloating that does not subside overnight

• Difficulty in swallowing when food gets stuck

• Indigestion-type pain that wakes you up at night

• Significant and unexplained weight loss

• Bleeding from the back passage

• Chronic, painless diarrhoea.

How can IBS be treated?

Medical treatments vary. Many sufferers find that certain foods trigger the onset of symptoms, eg dairy or gluten. Anti-spasmodic drugs and bulking agents may be prescribed and others seek complementary medical treatment from acupuncturists, homeopaths and herbalists.

Support Groups:

Irritable Bowel Syndrome Self Help and Support Group IBS Network, tel: (0114) 272 3253