What is IBS?

What is IBS?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is the name given to a longstanding illness consisting of frequent abdominal discomfort and bowel symptoms that cannot be explained by any other disease.

Symptoms include:

  • Abdominal cramps, often relieved by going to the toilet
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhoea
  • Constipation
  • Frustrated defaecation (needing to go to the toilet but not being able to)

Other common symptoms that may be associated with IBS:

  • Tiredness
  • Nausea
  • Heartburn and indigestion
  • Backache
  • Needing to pass urine frequently
  • Headaches
  • Muscle pains
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

IBS is an illness that has no specific cause, no distinctive pathology and no single effective treatment.  The symptoms can vary from person to person and in the same person different times but often in response to what happens or changes in diet or life style.

Physiological studies have shown that the gut in IBS tends to be more sensitive and reactive (irritable). Causes of this may include a traumatic or upsetting event or situation or an attack of gastroenteritis.

It is more common in women than men (3:2), tends to start in teenage or twenties and may persist on and off throughout life, often depending on what is happening.

It is never possible to be completely sure, since all bowel diseases can ‘irritate the bowel’ and cause the same symptoms, but there are certain questions that can help you decide whether you need to see your doctor.

Could it be anything else?


Have I had this for longer than a month? IBS is a longstanding illness. It tends to come and go according to what’s happening.

Do I have any ‘Red Flag’ symptoms? A physical illness, such as colitis, coeliac disease or bowel cancer tends to ‘show its hand’ through the development of more alarming symptoms (see Red Flag Symptoms).

Have my symptoms changed?  If your symptoms change for no obvious reason (diet or stress), you should check this out with your doctor/nurse.

Do I have a family history of Crohn’s Disease, Ulcerative Colitis, Colonic or Ovarian Cancer? If you do, it would be prudent to be screened for these conditions by your doctor.

Are you over 50 and have got symptoms of IBS with bowel irregularity for the first time? Bowel cancer tends to come on in older people often and the first symptom may be an irregular bowel habit.

Red Flag Symptoms

The following symptoms are warning signs for which you should always seek medical advice. They include:

  • Bleeding from the rectum. Although in many cases rectal bleeding are caused by haemorrhoids (piles), which often develop in people with IBS, regular loss of blood from the rectum should never be ignored, as it could be a symptom of colitis or cancer.
  • Weight loss. For most of us, our weight keeps relatively stable. So if you lose more than half a stone (3 Kg) weight without trying, you should check this out with your doctor.
  • Persistent fever and malaise (attacks of sweating, shivering and tiredness).
  • An ongoing change in bowel habit occurring for no obvious reason (diet or stress or medication). This is particularly important the older you get (over 50) because of the risk of bowel cancer.

What else could it be?

Symptoms of IBS indicate a sensitivity and irritability of the gut, which may, of course be caused by other diseases that irritate or cause inflammation of the bowel.

Your doctor will always need to consider the possibility of one of these.

  • Diverticular Disease
  • Coeliac Disease
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
  • Amoebiasis and Giardiasis
  • Bowel Cancer
  • Ovarian Cancer
  • Polycystic Ovaries

Is this IBS?

People with IBS frequently suffer from headaches, and backache, urinary symptoms, tiredness, and pain in many parts of the body.

IBS is an individual illness. People react with their own individual symptoms.


  • Lethargy
  • Backache
  • Urinary frequency
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle pains
  • Indigestion
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath




Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) causes persistent fatigue (exhaustion) that affects everyday life and doesn’t go away with sleep or rest.

CFS is also known as ME, which stands for myalgic encephalomyelitis. There’s some debate over the correct term to use for the condition, but we will refer to the condition as CFS.

CFS is a serious condition that can cause long-term illness and disability, but many people – particularly children and young people – improve over time.

It’s estimated around 250,000 people in the UK have CFS. Anyone can get the condition, although it’s more common in women than men.It usually develops when people are in their early 20s to mid-40s. Children can also be affected, usually between the ages of 13 and 15.


Fibromyalgia, also called fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS), is a long-term condition that causes pain all over the body.

As well as widespread pain, people with fibromyalgia may also have:

  • increased sensitivity to pain
  • fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • muscle stiffness
  • difficulty sleeping
  • problems with mental processes (known as “fibro-fog”) – such as problems with memory and concentration
  • headaches
  • irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) – a digestive condition that causes stomach pain and bloating

The exact cause of fibromyalgia is unknown, but it’s thought to be related to abnormal levels of certain chemicals in the brain and changes in the way the central nervous system (brain, spinal cord, and nerves) processes pain messages carried around the body.


Indigestion (dyspepsia) is a condition of impaired digestion. Symptoms may include upper abdominal fullness, heartburn, nausea, belching, or upper abdominal pain.

Heartburn is when acid moves up from the stomach into the gullet (oesophagus) and causes a burning pain behind your breastbone.

Indigestion and heartburn can occur together or on their own.

It’s a common problem that affects most people at some point. In most cases it’s mild and only occurs occasionally. People may also experience feeling full earlier than expected when eating.

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