Treating irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) affects around six million people in the UK. It has a range of symptoms, including stomach pain, bloating, constipation, diarrhoea and vomiting.

Toilet with the seat up

The name IBS is given to these set of symptoms which occur together but are actually unexplained, with no obvious biological reason, such as a change in the structure of the bowel, being present.

April is IBS Awareness Month, supported by the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorder (IFFGD). During the month, the aim is to raise awareness of the condition and encourage those who are living with it to seek medical advice. It is also hoped that the awareness month will go some way to removing the stigma attached to IBS by encouraging more dialogue around the condition.

The month of April was first designated as IBS Awareness Month in 1997 and ‘Don’t Suffer in Silence’ is a common theme that has been used throughout the campaign.

The condition can affect anyone. At any one time between 10 and 20 per cent of people in the western world satisfy the criteria for being diagnosed with the condition. IBS is more frequently diagnosed in women than men, and tends to affect younger people more than older people. It is commonly associated with emotional tension and is frequently triggered by life changes or stressful events.

IBS isn’t a dangerous condition and, although it can feel extremely uncomfortable, it poses no serious health threat. It does not increase your chances of developing cancer or other bowel conditions. It can be unpredictable, however, with people sometimes going for many months without symptoms before a flare up.

There is no one size fits all cure for IBS, and different treatments will work for different people. Making changes to diet and lifestyle are two of the key ways of treating the condition, although psychological treatments, counselling and medication can also help.

Fibre is one of the food groups that IBS sufferers are often told to modify their intake of. If IBS leads you to have diarrhoea then it may be suggested that you try to cut down on insoluble fibre items such as bran and cereals, which the body cannot digest. If you are suffering from constipation, however, you may find benefits from drinking more water and eating more soluble fibre, such as fruit, root vegetables and oats.

It can also help if you keep to regular meal times, and eat slowly, make sure your tea and coffee consumption stays below three cups a day and also cut down on alcohol and fizzy drinks.

If IBS is still troubling you after 12 months of other treatments your GP may recommend some psychological treatments. Hypnosis can be used to change your mind’s attitudes towards your pain. This can be either done by a professional, or through self-hypnosis at home.

Cognitive behaviour therapy can also ease IBS symptoms by helping you remain positive and react differently to them, with the idea being that how you feel can partly affect your physical symptoms.

If you believe you are experiencing IBS, visit your GP who will be able to talk over your symptoms with you. More information can be found on the NHS Choices website. Guidance is also available from the IBS Network (formerly known as The Gut Trust).