Try these tips at home to ease irritable bowel syndrome symptoms.
Irritable bowel syndrome, most often referred to as IBS, is a relatively common condition that leaves sufferers with problems related to the bowel, including bloating, constipation and abdominal pain.
Sadly, there’s no cure for IBS – but there are lifestyle measures you can take which will ease symptoms. Dr Roger Henderson explains what irritable bowel syndrome is, how it’s diagnosed and what you can do to ease your symptoms:
What is IBS?
Irritable bowel syndrome is the name given to a collection of various symptoms, some or all of which may be present, and which affect the bowel.
Women are slightly more commonly affected than men and it can occur at any age, but you can rest assured that it never changes into anything worrying or serious such as cancer. Although we don’t know what causes IBS, about half of all people will date the start of their symptoms to a major life event that causes stress, such as bereavement or a change of job, suggesting that there may be a psychological trigger in susceptible patients.
A number of people date the start of their symptoms to an acute gastroenteritis but in the remainder of cases, the trigger factor remains unidentified.
What are the symptoms of IBS?
Symptoms of IBS can be extremely varied and are different for everyone and depend on which parts of the gut are involved – there is often overlap between areas of the gut. Some people may experience problems in only one part of the gut, others in several.
There may also be other symptoms not linked to the bowel such as backache, sluggishness, gynaecological problems and urinary discomfort. Many people find that there may be weeks or months where there are few symptoms, followed by days of discomfort and problems – these episodes where symptoms occur can often be linked to times of stress.
The most common symptoms associated with IBS include:
- Abdominal pain
This is typically felt in the mid to lower abdomen, and is usually described as a ‘knifing’ or ‘sharp’ ‘stabbing’ type of pain. This may come and go, last seconds or many hours, and can make the sufferer restless and move around to try to get comfortable.
This is often not present on waking, but gradually worsens as the day progresses with the abdomen slowly swelling up.
- Constipation and/or diarrhoea
Although diarrhoea can often occur, constipation is sometimes more common and IBS sufferers can go many days without opening their bowels because bowel spasm makes this difficult.
How is IBS diagnosed?
IBS is usually diagnosed after all other possibilities have been excluded and so tests are sometimes required although not everyone will need to have these done – it all depends on the symptoms. There is no single blood test, X-ray or scan that will diagnose IBS and the diagnosis is often made on the basis of the presence of typical symptoms.
There is no single blood test, X-ray or scan that will diagnose IBS.
However, as patients with IBS get older, the diagnosis becomes more one of exclusion (excluding other conditions). This means more investigations are performed to ensure the diagnosis is correct. These may include a gastroscopy (an endoscopic examination of the oesophagus, stomach and duodenum), ultrasound tests, barium studies and a colonoscopy – an endoscopic examination of the large bowel.
How is IBS treated?
Fortunately, most attacks of IBS do not last too long and so need little active treatment. If treatment is needed, this tends to be targeted on the particular symptom so pain – usually caused by spasm or ‘cramp’ of the bowel – can be treated with drugs.
There are a range of treatments available for treating IBS including medicine for stomach cramps (antispasmodics), stool-softening laxatives, if constipation is a major problem, and medicine for the treatment of gas and stomach rumbling, in cases where these are a major problem.
There are a range of treatments available for treating IBS, including medicine for stomach cramps.
Other drug options include tricyclic antidepressants to help relieve pain in people who have not responded to other treatments, and antidiarrhoeals such as loperamide, if diarrhoea is a major problem. Constipation is treated by increasing fluid and fibre intake, but bloating can be sometimes difficult to treat successfully.
Self-help treatment tips for IBS
As far as at-home self treatment goes, if certain foods seem to make your symptoms worse then avoid them. You can also try the following tips to ease your symptoms:
✔️ Try to reduce your general levels of stress and anxiety as this will ease the problem. You might like to experiment with some of the different relaxation techniques, such as meditation or mindfulness.
✔️ Some people find that natural treatments such as aloe vera helpful during an attack, but make sure the brand you use is high in mucopolysaccharides as this is the active ingredient.
✔️ Take a daily vitamin B supplement, drink a probiotic yoghurt daily to build up levels of friendly bacteria in the gut, and cut out stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes.
✔️ Peppermint oil capsules are often a great help in easing bowel spasm too.
Drink lots of water, preferably three litres a day, and have a high fibre diet to improve digestion.
✔️ Helpful dietary tips include drinking lots of water, preferably three litres a day and having a high-fibre diet to improve digestion. But the amount of fibre must be increased gradually to allow the stomach to get used to it.
✔️ Avoid food or beverages that make the symptoms worse – coffee and milk are frequent offenders – and it may be helpful to keep a diary in which you note down the foods that seem to upset your stomach. Avoid large meals, but eat regularly, and limit your alcohol intake.
✔️ Physical activity and exercise can improve digestion and reduce stress.
✔️ Heat treatment with hot packs, hot-water bottles or electric blankets may relieve the symptoms.
✔️ Avoid strong spices and foods that give you wind.
What else could IBS be?
Be aware, because irritable bowel syndrome can mimic so many other intestinal disorders, it’s important to identify those symptoms that require you to see your doctor.
These include difficulty in swallowing, indigestion-type pain that wakes you up at night, abdominal bloating that does not get better overnight, significant and unexplained weight loss, bleeding from the back passage and chronic, painless diarrhoea.