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What is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and who does it affect?

Irritable bowel syndrome is a common condition that gives rise to recurrent bouts of abdominal pain & discomfort. Typically it occurs in association with changes in bowel function leading to diarrhoea, constipation or a combination of both.  It can affect in both men & women of all ages , although it is more common in younger people and is twice as common in women compared to men.  

What are the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome?

Common symptoms include:

Less common symptoms include: feeling sick, headache, belching, poor appetite, feeling quickly 'full' after eating, heartburn, and bladder symptoms (an associated 'irritable bladder'). Some people have occasional mild symptoms. Others have unpleasant symptoms for long periods. Many people fall somewhere in between, with flare-ups of symptoms from time to time. IBS is common and can affect anyone at any age.

Is irritable bowel syndrome known by any other name?

The condition is known by a number of names including IBS, irritable bowel, spastic gut, spastic colon  

What is the cause of IBS?

The cause of IBS is not known. It is often referred to as a diagnosis of exclusion. This means that it is diagnosed only after other causes have been excluded. Infection, allergy or inflammation do not appear to be directly responsible for irritable bowel syndrome. However certain factors may bring on symptoms. The two commonest factors are stress & anxiety and certain foods (food & mood).

Typical foods and drinks that may trigger IBS include the following

Psychological factors

Psychological factors including stress and anxiety appear to play an important role in IBS. Increased stress may makes symptoms worse or may even bring on symptoms of abdominal cramps or diarrhoea in individuals who have never been diagnosed with IBS.

Following episode of food poisoning or gastroenteritis

It is not uncommon for patients to notice IBS type symptoms persist after an episode of food poisoning. It seems likely that such attacks may lead to a prolonged increase in sensitivity of the bowel, leading to typical IBS symptoms of cramps, bloating and altered bowel function.

How is  IBS diagnosed?

There is no test that confirms the diagnosis of IBS. Your doctor will usually be able to diagnose IBS from the typical symptoms. However, on occasion, it may be necessary to perform specialised tests before being able to give a confident diagnosis of IBS. These tests might include blood tests to exclude anaemia & coeliac disease and stool samples to exclude infection or inflammation. Your doctor may also recommend taking a lactose-free diet for 2 weeks to make sure that symptoms are not related to lactose intolerance.

Your doctor may also recommend a colonoscopy to exclude colitis or other bowel problem. This is not necessary for every  patient with irritable bowel syndrome. However, it is often recommended if blood tests show anaemia or if additional symptoms such as weight loss or rectal bleeding are present or if the symptoms begin later in life (over the age of 45 years).

What other conditions can cause symptoms similar to irritable bowel syndrome?

A number of other conditions can cause similar symptoms. Your doctor will be able to assess your specific symptoms and will also take other factors into considertion including your age and the duration of your symptoms before advising on whether they feel there is a need to do more specialised tests. Other disorders that can cause similar symptoms include

How is irritable bowel syndrome treated?

No single treatment will work in every patient. It is often necessary to try multiple different things before getting a response. Such a holistic approach can however, lead to sustained improvement in symptoms for many patients. The most commonly treatments are listed below

What is the outlook or prognosis for irritable bowel syndrome patients?

Irritable bowel syndrome may be a lifelong condition. For some people, symptoms are disabling and reduce the ability to work, travel, and attend social events. Symptoms can often be improved or relieved through treatment. However, it is important to remember that IBS does not cause permanent harm to the inteCartoon of Irritable Dowel Syndromestines, and it does not lead to a serious disease, such as cancer.

Where can I get more information on IBS?

The IBS Network (previously known as The Gut Trust)

Tel: 0114 272 32 53


NHS Choices Website

Good UK based website on IBS

An information sheet on IBS can be downloaded here

Cartoon of man seeing doctor with Irritable Bowel Syndrome Glasgow Colorectal Centre Logo

If you have any further questions about irritable bowel syndrome or other colorectal issues, your own GP is often the best first port of call.

If appropriate, they will be able to arrange a referral to a colorectal specialist centre such as the Glasgow Colorectal Centre.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Symptoms, diagnosis & treatment options

Glasgow Colorectal Centre logo Glasgow skyline silhouette showing  the SECC & Finnieston crane reflected in on the river Clyde

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common & distressing problem, which causes recurrent abdominal pain & discomfort. It is usually accompanied by alteration in bowel function, diarrhoea, constipation, or a combination of both. There are a number of different causes and treatment options.

Female with abdominal pain secondary to Irritable Bowel Syndrome