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Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a functional disorder of the gastrointestinal tract characterised by chronic abdominal pain and altered bowel habits. About 1 in 5 Australians will experience IBS at some point in their lives. It is twice as common in women as men.

Some people with the condition have frequent, watery bowel movements (diarrhoea). Others do not have enough bowel movements (constipation). Some patients switch back and forth between diarrhoea and constipation.

Symptoms include:

  • Stomach pain and cramps, related to a bowel movement
  • Diarrhoea or constipation (some people switch back and forth between diarrhoea and constipation)
  • Bloating
  • Gas

No one knows the exact underlying cause of IBS. The symptoms may be due to increased sensitivity to the function of the bowel. This can be responsible for discomfort, and abnormal contractions in the bowel muscle.

If your symptoms are typical, you may not need any tests at all.
Diagnostic tests will be required if you are over 40 years old when you develop symptoms, if you have a family history of bowel cancer or if it is suspected that your symptoms are caused by other illness such as coeliac disease (intolerance to gluten), inflammatory bowel disease, diverticulitis or polyps. These tests may include:

  • Full medical check-up
  • Blood tests, including blood tests for coeliac disease
  • Simple stool/poo test
  • Investigation of the stomach and upper small bowel under sedation (gastroscopy)
  • Investigation of the bowel under sedation (colonoscopy).

Treatment is usually dietary focusing on the avoidance of specific dietary sugars (FODMAPS) and also gluten. There are medications for the symptoms of IBS if necessary.