Irritable Bowel Syndrome – just puff and wind?

What is it about bodily functions that make them the butt of so many cheap jokes? After all, problems with our digestion are no laughing matter, and they affect a huge number of us. But perhaps that’s why they’re such a favourite source of material for comedians – so many of us can identify with the embarrassment and the discomfort. Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, is one of the most common culprits. It affects about 1 in 5 people in their lifetime, and women are especially likely to be afflicted.

What is it about bodily functions that make them the butt of so many cheap jokes? After all, problems with our digestion are no laughing matter, and they affect a huge number of us. But perhaps that’s why they’re such a favourite source of material for comedians – so many of us can identify with the embarrassment and the discomfort.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, is one of the most common culprits. It affects about 1 in 5 people in their lifetime, and women are especially likely to be afflicted.

What is it?

IBS is a ‘functional’ bowel problem – ‘functional means a problem with how your digestive problem works. It’s not caused by a single underlying problem with the structure of the bowel, like an ulcer, inflammation or the bowel or cancer.

What does it mean?

IBS doesn’t cause serious complications like blockage of the gut or cancer. It can’t be ‘cured’ in the way that we can cure a chest infection with antibiotics – but it can be treated. You can make a huge difference to your symptoms by looking at your diet and lifestyle.

What are the symptoms?

Common symptoms include:

  • pain in your tummy which comes and goes. The pain often gets better if you open your bowels or pass wind. It’s also often worse after you eat, and can be at its worst when you also have diarrhoea or constipation
  • passing more wind
  • bloating of your tummy, and feeling full easily
  • bouts of constipation and/or diarrhoea – sometimes varying between the two
  • having to rush to get to the loo
  • a feeling of not having opened your bowels fully after you’ve finished
  • passing mucus when you open your bowels

Could I have it?

Watch Dr Sarah Jarvis' advice on Irritable Bowel Syndrome

You can’t have IBS diagnosed until you’ve had symptoms for at least 6 months. There’s no test for IBS. However, your doctor should be able to rule out other causes.

What is the treatment?

Treatment will depend on which symptoms (such as diarrhoea or constipation) are most troublesome.

  • Antispasmodic tablets can help the pain.
  • A high fibre diet is especially useful if constipation is a problem.
  • Some people find that cutting out certain foods – especially wheat, rye, barley dairy products or onions – can help. Try cutting out one at a time and see if your symptoms improve
  • Regular exercise can help keep other things regular too!

Tummy trouble – when you can’t afford to ignore it

Fortunately, most people with tummy trouble don’t have a serious problem. It’s always a bore; it’s often distressing and commonly painful; but on the whole, most changes don’t herald the onset of sinister disease. As we’ve seen above, that doesn’t mean you have to just put up with them. What’s more, there are some symptoms you should never ignore. Even these are usually due to a non-worrying cause – but you should always get them checked out by your doctor. After all, even if there is something nasty going on, the chances of treatment being successful are much higher if it’s caught early.

If you have any new symptoms in your bowel, it’s worth talking to your GP. Particular symptoms to look out for include:

  • vomiting blood, or black material that looks like coffee grounds
  • passing dark blood in your stools – you should get any blood checked out, but bright blood is more likely to be due to piles
  • blood mixed in with your stools
  • passing black, tarry stools
  • losing weight or going off your food for no apparent reason
  • a recent change in your bowel habit, especially towards looser stools

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.