Irritable bowel syndrome symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhoea or constipation, frequent bowel motions, bloating, abdominal tenderness and swelling. IBS is believed to be linked to stress and because of the strong connection between the bowels and the brain, symptoms can also include headaches, nervousness, depression and anxiety. In fact, the NHS report that up to 60 per cent of people with IBS have psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression.
People are generally affected by one symptom more than another, and IBS tends to be more common in women than men. For some people, the symptoms are so mild they almost go unnoticed, but others may describe IBS as a debilitating disease. If the main symptom is diarrhoea then food passes through the digestive system faster than usual, while constipated and bloated sufferers complain that the bowels don't feel fully emptied after going to the toilet. Some people experience sharp, gripping abdominal cramps and pain in the abdomen, which can get better - or worse - by opening the bowels, passing wind or eating.
IBS sufferers often feel an urgent need to open their bowels, and stools vary in consistency. Excessive wind, burping, bad breath, nausea, vomiting and indigestion, a sense of fullness, back and groin pain, lethargy, disturbed sleep and a need to urinate more frequently - sometimes quite urgently - are other reported symptoms.
Symptoms of Irritable bowel syndrome
Bowel contents are moved along by a series of rhythms which tighten and relax segments of the intestine - this process is called 'peristalsis'. The peristalsis movements are stronger, more frequent, and noisier in IBS sufferers, causing abdominal rumblings as the gases are moved through the intestines. Health professionals find it difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of IBS, but it is described as a functional disorder, which means that the way the bowel normally operates is affected.
For many people IBS occurs after a stressful or emotional period. It is also thought that IBS is triggered by hormones, and symptoms can worsen for a woman during her menstrual period. IBS can also develop after a gastrointestinal infection or an inflammation of the stomach and bowel linings which causes sickness and diarrhoea. The diet is also a major contributing factor and food intolerances to products like wheat and dairy can wreak havoc on the working of the innards. Gas producing vegetables such as beans can aggravate symptoms as can sugar, alcohol and caffeine.
After explaining your symptoms to your GP he/she will probably give you a physical examination. Your GP will make further investigations to rule-out other more serious conditions if there are additional symptoms which are of concern. These include: bleeding from the rectum, blood with the stools, weight loss, anaemia, if you're aged over 45, and have a family history of cancer or inflammatory bowel disease. You might be asked to provide a stool test or to have an X-ray of the bowel taken after a barium enema (when the colon is filled with a liquid that shows up on X-rays).
Managing your symptoms
Once you're diagnosed with IBS, it is likely to persist for some time. However, irritable bowel syndrome symptoms can come and go, and for long periods of time they may disappear completely. The best 'cure' for your IBS is to understand it, know what triggers it then aim to avoid the frequency and intensity of the symptoms. Fortunately, there are a number of measures which will alleviate, and potentially eliminate the symptoms, not least is watching what you eat.