Around 1 in 5 Australians1 will experience the unpleasant symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) at some time in their lives.
But how do you tell the difference between normal gut issues and IBS? When should you seek help? And what treatments are available?
Anyone who has suffered irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) knows how uncomfortable it can be. Symptoms can include diarrhoea, constipation, cramping, and bloating, and often show up all at the same time.
While it can be worse for some than others, IBS is considered a chronic condition that must be managed long-term.
In this article:
Who does IBS affect?
Worldwide, it’s estimated that 5-10 per cent of the population has IBS2.
IBS affects people of all ages, even children. However, it’s more common in females and people under 50.
There are other risk factors too.
“If you have family member(s) with IBS, you are more likely to suffer from it. A severe infection, especially in the gut and digestive tract during childhood, can also increase the risk of developing IBS,” says Founder of Renovatio Bioscience and Co-chair of TEDxNewtown, Dr Vincent Candrawinata3.
Different types of IBS
Irritable bowel syndrome can present in three different ways4:
- Constipation-predominant. Alternating bouts of constipation with normal stools.
- Diarrhoea-predominant. Frequent loose stools with an urgency to go to the toilet, and potential incontinence issues.
- Alternating constipation and diarrhoea. Both of the above can come and go.
What are the causes of IBS that we know of?
There are many causes of IBS. Common triggers include4:
- Emotional stress
- Infection such as an episode of gastro
- Food intolerance/diet
- Medications such as antibiotics, antacids, and painkillers
- Regulation between the brain and the gut malfunctioning
Signs and symptoms of IBS include:
- Abdominal pain, often relieved by passing wind or faeces
- Bloating and abdominal distension
- Chronic diarrhoea or constipation, or both
- A feeling of incomplete bowel movement
“Symptoms such as stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea, and constipation are not only physically straining but can also affect someone’s social life and daily routine,” says Dr Candrawinata.
“While most cases of IBS are mild to moderate, there is about 20 per cent of cases that are considered severe. Unlike an everyday tummy ache, which goes away within a day or two, IBS can last a few weeks or even months.”
When should you seek help and how?
If you have concerns about your symptoms, it’s a good idea to consult your GP who can determine if you need to be referred to a specialist or not.
“There’s no test to diagnose IBS but specialist doctors, called gastroenterologists, use specific criteria to identify the disorder and rule out other conditions,” says Dr Candrawinata.
See your doctor if:
- Your symptoms are chronic or ongoing
- You notice blood in your stools
- You have a fever or severe diarrhea
- You experience unexplained or unintentional weight loss
What does managing IBS look like?
There is no permanent fix for IBS. However, a range of treatment options can help manage flare-ups and alleviate symptoms.
Self-management treatments include:
- Eating a balanced diet. Eliminate foods that trigger your symptoms and avoid heavily processed foods and fried foods that can cause inflammation in the body.
- Maintaining a routine. Eat at regular times to help your system regulate the gut and digestive functions. Don't skip meals or drastically change your diet.
- Exercise. Getting active helps our circulation and regulates our bodily functions including our digestive system.
- Talking to health professionals. A psychologist can offer you strategies for dealing with negative thoughts.
Medical treatment options include:
- Antidiarrhoea medication
- Laxatives for constipation
- Antispasmodic drugs, which may ease cramping
Send tummy troubles travelling
If you’re experiencing symptoms of IBS, remember that help is available. Talk to your GP and check on your level of hospital cover. You could be covered for:.
- Digestive System. Includes hospital treatment for the investigation and treatment of the digestive system, including the oesophagus, stomach, gall bladder, pancreas, spleen, liver and bowel. For example: oesophageal cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, gall stones and haemorrhoids.
- Gastrointestinal endoscopy. Includes hospital treatment for the diagnosis, investigation, and treatment of the internal parts of the gastrointestinal system using an endoscope. For example: colonoscopy, gastroscopy, endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP).
If you’re an HBF member, you can check what you're covered for by logging on to myHBF or calling us on 133 423.
You can also choose or ask to be referred to a ‘Full Cover’ Gastroenterologist, find a provider here.
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This article contains general information only and does not take into account the health, personal situation or needs of any person. In conjunction with your GP or treating health care professional, please consider whether the information is suitable for you and your personal circumstances.