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There are many myths surrounding irritable bowel disease. Here, we explain the facts about the condition.
Irritable bowel syndrome, also known as IBS, is a common and often painful, long-term condition that affects people’s digestive system. Symptoms of IBS can get worse or better over time, and often come and go. It’s thought that IBS affects up to one in five people – at some period in their lives1.
The symptoms of IBS
The most common symptoms of IBS include stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation. As each person is different, they may experience one or all of the symptoms2. While some people may be affected for just a few days, others may experience symptoms for months at a time1. Bouts of IBS can often be triggered by periods of stress, or eating certain foods – but this is not the underlying cause for the condition3.
Typically, IBS develops in people between 20 and 30 years old, and is twice as prevalent in women as men1. There are many myths surrounding IBS. Indeed, a study by Buscopan IBS Relief in the UK found that 15% of those surveyed questioned whether IBS was a real medical condition3. Here, we explain the facts about IBS and dispel some of the common myths.
Diet changes can cure IBS
Some people think that IBS is caused by a bad diet and so can be cured by making dietary improvements. Although eating certain foods can exacerbate IBS or bring on symptoms, IBS is a digestive condition, which means that diet changes won’t cure IBS. In some people, however, diet changes may relieve some of the symptoms5.
Some people with IBS choose to reduce their intake of legumes, such as peas and beans, as well as certain vegetables and sugar substitutes to ease gas, bloating and discomfort5.
IBS is a stomach ache
While many think the main symptom of IBS is stomach ache, pain in the stomach region is just one of the symptoms. The others can include diarrhoea, constipation and abdominal bloating. IBS typically results in a combination of bowel problems, where the bowel performs in an abnormal way. It is more severe than a stomach ache and can cause more complications in the day-to-day lives of those who suffer from the condition1,3.
IBS always causes diarrhoea
While diarrhoea is a symptom of the illness, IBS can actually cause diarrhoea and constipation. In fact, it can cause both problems concurrently. Although diarrhoea-predominant IBS is the most common form, sufferers can also have constipation-predominant IBS or alternating constipation and diarrhoea4.
IBS and colitis are the same
IBS and colitis are often confused, but they are different conditions. Colitis can be caused by a number of conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease, allergic reactions or infection. It involves inflammation in the large intestine – which doesn’t occur in IBS. However, people can have both IBS and colitis separately4.
IBS is a psychological problem
Although IBS can be exacerbated by stress, it is a functional disorder, which means the condition exists on its own and is induced by dysfunction within the digestive system6. Psychological problems may develop as a side effect of IBS, but they are certainly not the cause. Due to the unpredictable nature of IBS and the discomfort involved, IBS sufferers can develop anxiety and depression2.
IBS can’t be diagnosed
Although IBS can be difficult to diagnose, it is possible. Indeed, IBS is often diagnosed after doctors have performed tests to rule out other conditions, such as infection or disease, that present themselves similarly. The Rome Criteria is most commonly used to diagnose IBS.
This dictates that the sufferer should have experienced symptoms for at least three days per month for the last three months, but that symptoms should have begun at least six months ago. Consequently, it can take at least six months to diagnose IBS7.
You can read more about IBS, including the symptoms and treatments, in our consultant Q&A.
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