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Irritable bowel syndrome symptoms

Lesley Dobson / 09 January 2015

Read our guide to spotting the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Rope knot symbolising stomach cramps
Irrittable bowel symptoms can include bloating, swollen abdomen, and cramping

If your digestive system is ruling – or even ruining – your life, and you haven’t been able to find out what is causing the problem, it’s possible that you may have Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is the term used by doctors to describe a collection of symptoms that involves your colon or large intestine. About one third of us are affected by IBS at some stage, and around one in ten people find the symptoms so troubling that they see their GP for help./p>

Most people who've never had IBS think it entails continuous diarrhoea, but symptoms can include abdominal pain or cramps; feeling 'full' or bloated; alternating constipation and diarrhoea; production of mucus; wind; nausea; feelings of inadequate emptying of the bowel; and women sometimes experience pain during sexual intercourse.

However, IBS never causes bleeding, so if this affects you, see your doctor. It may well be caused by something simple like haemorrhoids, but it should always be checked.

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IBS symptoms may include:

IBS symptoms tend to flare up and then die back again, so you may not have them all the time. IBS symptoms can vary wildly from person to person but can include:

  • Pain and/or spasms in your abdomen
  • Diarrhoea and/or constipation, and a change to your body’s normal timetable for needing the loo
  • Bloated, swollen abdomen
  • Lots of rumbling noises in your abdomen
  • Having and passing an excessive amount of wind
  • Urgently needing to go to the loo to empty your bowels
  • Feeling that you haven’t totally emptied your bowels after having a poo
  • A sharp pain low down in your rectum
  • Mucus coming out of your bottom

You may also find that you have symptoms in different parts of your body. These may include:

  • Headaches and dizziness
  • Backache 
  • Muscle and joint pains
  • Ringing in your ears 
  • Nausea 
  • Lack of energy 
  • Being short of breath 
  • Having anxiety and depression

The IBS Network states that people with other illnesses that don’t have a medical explanation have reported similar symptoms. These include:

  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome,
  • Fibromyalgia 
  • Functional Dyspepsia 

One possible explanation is that they may all be connected to a change in sensitivity affecting both the mind and body.

The symptoms of Fibromyalgia, for instance, include fatigue and wide-ranging pain, and extreme sensitivity to pain, with no obvious cause. One theory is that people who have this condition have experienced changes in the way their central nervous system processes the body’s pain messages.

Other symptoms of IBS

These can include problems passing urine – urgently needing to go, and/or feeling that you haven’t completely emptied your bladder. (In men problems urinating can also be a sign of prostate cancer and shouldn’t be ignored.) 

When to see your GP

If you are bleeding from your bottom, or have blood in your poo, it could be an indication of a more serious condition. Make an appointment to see your GP as soon as you can. Bleeding isn’t one of the symptoms of IBS.

Who is most likely to get IBS?

IBS is most likely to develop between the ages of 20 to 30, and about twice as many women as women have it. This condition isn’t the same for everyone - some people have more severe symptoms than others. The symptoms can come and go, lasting for just a few days sometimes, or for months at a time.

Unfortunately there is no cure for IBS at the moment, but the symptoms can improve with time, and medication can help alleviate specific symptoms.

What triggers IBS?

What triggers the symptoms also varies widely - from relationship upsets to eating apples. So pinpointing your particular bugbear may not be straightforward. Many expert believe that emotional tension can also be a cause.

However, IBS does have purely physical triggers in some people. US research shows that intolerance of fructose (a simple sugar found in honey, most fruits and some manufactured foods) may explain some symptoms. Other causes in some people include:

  • Alcohol
  • Spicy food
  • Too much or too little fibre
  • Caffeine
  • Smoking
  • Some patients seem to have "super-sensitive" bowels that react differently from those of healthy people.

Potential treatments

While the condition can't be cured, there are various drugs which your GP might prescribe to alleviate specific symptoms. For example:

  • Loperamide (Imodium) helps with diarrhoea attacks.
  • Bulking agents like psyllium, ispaghula husk or methylcellulose can ease constipation.
  • Antispasmodic drugs like atropine (Lomotil), merbentyl (Diarrest), mebeverine (Colofac) and hyoscine (Buscopan) all help to relieve abdominal cramps and diarrhoea.
  • Antidepressants can calm the bowel as well as relieving depression.
  • You will probably also need to experiment with lifestyle changes to alleviate stress and help control your symptoms.

Keeping a food diary may enable you to identify specific foods that upset you. Everyone's solution will differ, but with a combination of medication and self-help, it should be possible to prevent the condition interfering with normal living.

Need more time to talk to a doctor? Saga's GP phone service offers unlimited access 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Find out more about our GP phone service.


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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.