April 2021 is IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) Awareness Month. Designated by the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders, the event is designed to communicate important health messages about IBS diagnosis, treatment options and issues relating to quality of life. The intention is that with this increased awareness will come impactful positive change, including further research and education around the condition and improved patient care.
Between 10% and 15% of the population suffers from IBS, which is a painful condition that mainly affects the digestive system, causing cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation.
Symptoms differ in severity and duration. Some sufferers may only experience IBS for weeks or months, whereas others have far more long-term symptoms.
The exact cause of IBS is unknown although there is ongoing research into this subject. The current view is that there are a number of different causes of IBS, and it is often, although not always, triggered after a bout of food poisoning. There is also known to be a link between emotions and gut health (the psychological factors relating to IBS are set out below).
Individuals with symptoms of IBS are encouraged to speak to their GP as there could be something more concerning causing the same symptoms, and so it is important that there is a thorough investigation into the cause as treatment may be needed. While there is no specific test for IBS, the GP should be able to refer for further investigations to rule out alternate causes, if appropriate. Other conditions that may need to be considered during the diagnostic process include coeliac disease, infections, inflammatory bowel disease and some cancers. IBS is sometimes called a ‘diagnosis of exclusion’ because it is made after other illnesses have been ruled out.
There are plenty of resources providing information about living with IBS and managing the associated symptoms, which a GP should be able to provide. In general terms, eating a healthy, balanced diet is recommended as well as keeping a food diary, which can help track foods triggering a bad reaction. There are also over the counter medications that may help with symptoms such as cramping.
If an individual is having difficulty with certain foods, their GP might refer them to a dietitian who may discuss different diets that might be able to assist in reducing symptoms, such as the low FODMAP diet.
While many people know about the physical symptoms of IBS, they may not be aware of the link between IBS and mental health. IBS affects both the mind and the body, and can be triggered or worsened by stress or a traumatic event. Equally, the painful symptoms of IBS can lead to stress and anxiety – meaning that IBS can become a vicious circle.
Sufferers of IBS therefore may look into therapies for their mental wellbeing, such as counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), either to help them manage the condition better or to alleviate the stress or anxiety that could have initially triggered IBS.
For more information, visit the IBS Network’s website. The IBS Network is a charity that offers assistance to IBS sufferers and provides access to support groups and other useful information.