Are you one of the thousands of people with symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome who don’t seek help? If so, you may be suffering needlessly as there are treatments that a GP can prescribe that may provide relief but you need to make an appointment to be able to access this help.

Research study

A recent survey showed that as many as 48% of people in the UK with suspected IBS put off going to the doctor.

  • Nearly a third (31%) say this is because they are too embarrassed
  • 48% told researchers they hoped the symptoms would go away on their own

The research, published in 2018, asked more than 2,000 people about their gut health.

  • One in six said they had never visited a doctor despite experiencing bowel problems.
  • More than 70% of 35-44-year-olds said they regularly suffer from some form of bowel problem.

The consequences of people’s reluctance to seek medical help can be very distressing. Twenty-eight per cent said they had soiled themselves in public as a result of the condition and 17% have to carry two sets of clothing for fear of soiling or bloating.

A 2015 survey by the American Gastroenterological Association made similar findings. It reported that:

  • 67% of people with suspected IBS waited for longer than a year to see their doctor after first experiencing symptoms.
  • For 11% of people, the wait was a decade or more.

These researchers concluded that between 10-15% of the US population regularly experienced chronic IBS symptoms, such as cramping, constipation, diarrhoea, bloating and recurring abdominal pain.

Why people don’t seek help

Sadly, bowel conditions like IBS still cause sufferers a great deal of embarrassment and people feel self-conscious about discussing their bowels or being examined by their doctor.

The fact that the symptoms of IBS can be variable and may come and go can make people less likely to take their condition seriously.

This is a mistake as IBS shares some of the same characteristics as bowel cancer and it is important to get the symptoms investigated in order to rule out this as a possible cause, aside from the fact that IBS cannot be treated until it has been properly diagnosed.

IBS symptoms

So, what are the symptoms of IBS? They can vary from person to person and they can even vary in severity in the same person from week to week. The main symptoms include:

  • A change in your bowel habits, such as diarrhoea, constipation or sometimes both.
  • Bloating and wind.
  • Abdominal pain which may be relieved by going for a poo.
  • Passing mucus from your bottom.
  • Feeling as though you haven’t fully emptied your bowels after going for a poo.
  • Occasional urgency to go to the toilet which may lead to soiling.

The impact IBS has on your life may lead to anxiety and depression. You may also experience other symptoms such as bladder problems, feeling sick, fatigue and backache.

Treatment of IBS

There is no cure for IBS however the condition can normally be managed effectively by changing your diet and lifestyle, and also by the use of medication and/or psychological treatments.

It can be helpful to learn what kind of foods trigger your symptoms, so your doctor may recommend keeping a food diary. Once you know what foods are triggers, you can avoid these until your symptoms subside. You may also need to adjust the amount of fibre in your diet.

If you have constipation it may be helpful to increase your intake of soluble fibre (fruit, vegetables, cereals), whereas if you have diarrhoea you might need to reduce your intake of insoluble fibre (cereals, nuts, seeds, bran and wholegrain bread). If you experience frequent bloating, your doctor may recommend something called a low FODMAP diet.

Other lifestyle changes that can help with IBS include reducing your stress levels and increasing the amount of exercise you do. There are a number of different types of medication that your doctor may also recommend:

  • Antispasmodics help reduce stomach pain and cramping
  • Laxatives help to relieve constipation
  • Antimotility medicines help to relieve diarrhoea
  • Low-dose antidepressants help to reduce stomach pain and cramping

Diagnosis of IBS

There is no specific test for IBS so your doctor will want to talk to you about your symptoms, how severe they are and how long you have had them.

You may also need to undergo tests to rule out other, more serious conditions such as coeliac disease, inflammatory bowel disease or bowel cancer.

Working with a specialist that can promptly diagnose and monitor your symptoms, will give you the best chance to get back to feeling your best.