From first experiencing symptoms to receiving a positive diagnosis of IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) takes an average of four years in the UK. Why so long?
Partly the reason is a lack of awareness among clinicians about the many different characteristics of IBS. The disease can have many different symptoms and can be associated with other conditions, such as gastrointestinal problems and fibromyalgia.
Secondly, clinicians sometimes lack confidence about making a positive diagnosis of IBS, concerned about missing a potentially serious disease like cancer. As a consequence, they continue to request investigations, and occasionally even surgery, over an extended period of time before coming to a diagnosis.
So what are the symptoms of IBS?
This common long-term condition can cause bouts of stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and/or constipation, amongst other less-common symptoms. Other factors associated with the symptoms and causes of IBS include:
- Symptoms vary from person to person and can be unpredictable.
- Someone with IBS can go for months without any symptoms and then suddenly have a flare-up.
- Symptoms affect some people more severely than others.
- A bout of IBS can last anything from a few days to months at a time.
- Women are twice as likely to be affected as men.
- Statistics suggest that roughly one in five of us will suffer from IBS at some point during our lives.
- No-one is quite sure what causes IBS, but stress is believed to play a major part, along with diet.
There is no specific test to diagnose IBS, which may be why more people don’t seek a diagnosis.
If you suspect you may have IBS your GP will ask you for details of your symptoms. If you have had any of the following symptoms for six months or more, IBS may be suspected:
- Stomach pain or discomfort
- A change in bowel habits, such as pooing more frequently, or experiencing diarrhoea or constipation
Your GP is likely to ask you if you have stomach pain that makes you feel like you need to go for a poo frequently, if the consistency of your poo has changed or if the discomfort in your stomach is eased by going for a poo.
They might also ask about how often you need to go for a poo and whether you strain when you do so, if you experience a feeling of bloating or hardness in your stomach, if your symptoms worsen after eating, if you have mucus coming from your bottom. Your GP will arrange a blood test to rule out other conditions, such as infection or coeliac disease. You may also be asked to provide a poo sample.
There is no specific cure for IBS however specialist help is available to help you manage the condition.
For example, you may benefit by finding out which types of foods trigger your symptoms so you can avoid them. IBS sufferers tend to experience a lessening of symptoms when they increase their fibre uptake. And because stress plays a major part in IBS, you will benefit from learning techniques to manage stress more effectively or from increasing the amount of exercise you take.
IBS can be painful and debilitating which can have a negative impact on your quality of life, social life, work-life and mental health.
If your physical symptoms are accompanied by feelings of depression or anxiety, your GP may be able to discuss therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or counselling.
The good news is that, even though there is no cure for IBS, with an effective management plan you can live a full and active life with the condition.
Read more: Are IBS symptoms ruining your social life?
Working with a specialist doctor will help promptly diagnose if you have IBS so you can start to better manage your symptoms and start any recommended treatment.