Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is one of the most common complaints in the western world. Around 50% of all gastrointestinal complaints and half of all GP referrals are due to IBS. Irritable bowel syndrome is also known by many other names, such as spastic colon, mucous colitis, functional bowel disorder, dyspeptic diarrhoea, spastic constipation, anxiety and GI syndrome, and nervous bowel.
It affects 24% of all women and 19% of all men, usually developing in late adolescence or early adulthood. Before the menopause, more women than men present with IBS; after the menopause the numbers are about equal. The condition is characterized by intermittent periods of constipation or diarrhoea, often accompanied by bloating and/or abdominal pain, mucous in stools and bowel rumbling.
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Irritable bowel syndrome needs to be distinguished from conditions with similar symptoms such as celiac, colorectal cancer, infective diarrhoea, diverticular disease, carcinoid syndrome, gallstones, appendicitis and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Stool tests usually find nothing significant – no blood, excess white cells, parasites or bacteria. Once partly digested food has left the stomach, it is moved through the digestive tract by rhythmic contractions of the muscles in the intestinal walls, a process called peristalsis. In irritable bowel syndrome, these muscles go into spasm for unknown reasons, becoming so uncoordinated that they move residues either too quickly (causing diarrhoea) or too slowly (causing constipation).
Although IBS is often very uncomfortable, inconvenient and sometimes quite painful, (and I suffered from it for 35 years), thankfully this digestive disorder is not at all dangerous or life threatening. Nor does it ever lead to anything more “serious,” like colon cancer or ulcerative colitis.