Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a disorder in which the normal rhythmic movement of your gut (bowel) is disturbed — this can lead to pain, bloating and excessive gas. You may have trouble going to the toilet (constipation), or have very loose and urgent bowel motions or stools (diarrhoea). It is very common — up to one in 5 Australians will have IBS symptoms at some time in their life.
No one knows exactly what causes irritable bowel syndrome, although stress can make the condition worse. It may be that your system can’t handle some foods, you don’t eat enough bulky food (fibre), or medicines you have taken, such as antibiotics or pain relievers, have disturbed your bowel function. You may have had food poisoning in the past, which can damage nerves in your gut and cause IBS symptoms to start or recur.
Your doctor will usually make a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome from your symptoms. If there is uncertainty about whether you have a more serious problem (e.g. if you have bleeding from the bowel, or considerable weight loss, which do not occur in IBS) your doctor may order other tests such as blood tests, a stool sample test, a sigmoidoscopy (to look at the lining of the last part of your bowel through a lighted tube), a colonoscopy (to look at the lining of your large intestine through a flexible lighted tube) or a barium enema (to view the lining of your bowel on X-ray). If you have IBS, the results of all these tests are likely to be normal.
If you have irritable bowel syndrome you may experience the following symptoms:
If your IBS symptoms are not being controlled by the measures outlined above, your doctor may prescribe medicines to help with cramping, pain, diarrhoea or constipation. Be careful to use your IBS medicines only at the times that your doctor suggests, rather than using them continuously. While medicines can help relieve some of the symptoms of IBS, no cure is currently available. So modifying your lifestyle is the most important thing you can do.
IBS should not cause blood in the stools, fever, or symptoms that wake you up at night. If you have symptoms like these, or vomiting, dizziness or fainting, you should see your doctor.
Irritable bowel syndrome can cause considerable discomfort and distress, but is not life-threatening. Many people worry about cancer, but there is no link between IBS and bowel cancer. See your doctor if you are concerned.
Last Reviewed: 07 December 2009
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