Around 1 in 5 Australians experience Irritable Bowel Syndrome at some point. The condition, generally referred to as 'IBS', affects women disproportionately (two thirds of all sufferers are women) and tends to appear in late teens and early twenties, with few new cases in people older than 45.
People with IBS suffer constipation and / or diarrhoea, which may be accompanied by cramps, abdominal pain, abdominal bloating and wind immediately after eating.
Some sufferers experience only diarrhoea, others only constipation, and some experience both conditions.
As yet there is no clearly understood mechanism to explain what causes IBS, although certain factors are known to be implicated. These include...
- Food intolerances - particularly those linked to an inability to process sugars found in common foods such as fructose, lactose (present in milk and milk products) and sorbitol.
- Stress - emotional stress and/or anxiety are common co-factors.
- Some medicines - some pain medication, antibiotics and heartburn / indigestion medications may play a role.
- Prior gastric infections - infections such as gastroenteritis, may continue to cause problems after they have 'cleared up'.
Tests / Diagnosis
There is no specific test for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, since it is not related to a particular disease or infection. Tests for other conditions which share the same symptoms may well be recommended, such as blood and stool tests or endoscopy / colonoscopy. If other possible causes are ruled out, IBS may be diagnosed.
Where other potential causes are discounted, often the best treatment approach for IBS sufferers is to modify diet and lifestyle. A food diary will enable you to identify any particular types of food that are linked to onset of the condition and then avoid these. Your gastroenterologist can also discuss available medications with you if needed.