Irritable bowel syndrome is also known as 'IBS' and 'functional bowel disorder'. It is a common digestive disorder which occurs when smooth muscle in the intestine doesn't function as it should. The signs and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome vary from one person to another. They can include abdominal pain and cramps (which are often relieved by going to the toilet or by passing wind), bloating, abdominal tenderness, diarrhoea, constipation, rumbling stomach, flatulence (wind), feeling full, belching, feeling sick and not feeling completely empty after going to the toilet.

Irritable bowel syndrome can occur at any age but is more common between adolescence and forty years of age.

Causes

Irritable bowel syndrome occurs when the bowel becomes oversensitive. This causes irregular contractions of the intestine and muscle spasms. One of the main triggers of irritable bowel syndrome is food. Eating one-off spicy dishes, very rich foods, eating too much or too little fibre or drinking tea, coffee or alcohol can all trigger an attack of IBS. It can also be triggered by anxiety, stress or when you are feeling down.

Avoiding Irritable Bowel Syndrome

  • eat a well balanced diet. Drink at least two and a half litres (four pints) of water every day. Eat small, regular meals instead of large meals and do not rush or skip meals. Avoid fatty, rich or spicy foods if you have noticed that they make symptoms worse. Take regular exercise
  • avoid stress or stressful situations. Relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation may help

Treatment

There is no cure for irritable bowel syndrome but the individual symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome can be treated if they are causing discomfort.

Bulk-forming laxatives can help to ease constipation by absorbing water as they pass through the body. This increases the volume of the faeces and makes it softer and easier to pass. Diarrhoea can be treated with antimotility drugs which slow down the rate at which waste travels through the body.Antispasmodics control muscle spasm therefore they can be used to ease the pain of stomach cramps.Overuse of diarrhoea treatments is not recommended because they can lead to constipation. Similarly, long-term use of laxatives is not recommended because the body can begin to depend on them to work the bowel.

When To See A Doctor

If you experience any of the following symptoms, consult a doctor: severe abdominal pain, blood or mucus in the faeces, darker faeces or weight loss.

Additional Information

Leaflets about diarrhoea and constipation are also available from this pharmacy. For more information about irritable bowel syndrome, contact the Digestive Disorders Foundation, 3 St Andrews Place, London, NW1 4LB. Tel: 0171 486 0341. Fax: 0171 224 2012. Or visit their website at www.digestivedisorders.org.uk.

If you are a woman taking a contraceptive pill, please remember that diarrhoea and sickness can stop the pill working properly. Extra contraceptive precautions must be taken during a bout of diarrhoea and for seven days afterwards. In the case of a combined pill, should the seven days finish during the pill-free week, the next packet should be started without a break. A doctor or pharmacist will be able to explain this in more detail.