A Patient Journey for IBS

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common long-term (chronic) condition affecting the large intestine, causing episodes of abdominal pain and related symptoms including abdominal cramps, bloating and episodes of diarrhoeaconstipation, or both.

It is important to see your doctor if you have persistent or severe symptoms – they can occur in more serious conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease (including ulcerative colitis which affects the large intestine and Crohn’s disease which affects the whole digestive system) or colon cancer as well as IBS. Other symptoms suggesting these more serious bowel conditions include weight loss, fever, rectal bleeding and worsening abdominal pain – if you have any of these symptoms you should certainly see a doctor. IBS symptoms tend to vary from time to time and may be associated with certain foods and stress.

Diagnosing IBS consists in a “diagnosis of exclusion” – your doctor needs to ensure that there is no evidence of any more serious conditions. Your doctor will ask about the duration and severity of symptoms; whether there are any specific trigger factors such as certain foods and stress (and in women about their menstrual cycle); whether there is any history of food allergy or a family history of bowel problems; and specifically about weight loss, rectal bleeding and vomiting. The doctor will also usually carry out a physical examination, which may include feeling for irregularities in your abdomen or a digital rectal examination. Blood tests and stool tests are also regularly used in diagnosis – particularly for individuals over 50. Imaging tests including colonoscopies and flexible sigmoidoscopies (procedures allowing doctors to examine the lower colon by inserting a thin flexible tube into the anus), X-rays, and CT scans (computerised composites of X-ray scans that allow doctors to see cross-sectional pictures of the relevant area of the body) may also be used.

Treatment of IBS is aimed at identifying trigger factors and making the necessary dietary and lifestyle changes – your doctor can help you to pinpoint trigger factors and advise you on other lifestyle changes. Probiotics may also help. The doctor may also prescribe medications to relieve symptoms. You should discuss with your GP how the symptoms are affecting your daily life and whether they are having any psychological impact on you – for example, if you are suffering from any feelings of depression. If you are, the doctor may suggest counselling, certain psychological therapies, or possibly prescribe antidepressants. There are certain alternative therapies that may prove helpful.

It is important that sufferers understand the condition and realise that it does not increase the risk of other bowel diseases. There are a number of support groups offering help and advice that talkhealth is happy to recommend: The IBS Network and Bladder and Bowel UK. For charities and organisations dealing with bowel cancer and related conditions, talkhealth recommends Bowel Cancer UK and The Bob Champion Cancer Trust. Other related charities recommended by talkhealth include Guts UK (for gut and liver disease), and ERIC (for childhood continence issues).

You can also find support in our talkIBS forum, and read the latest news and insights on our IBS blog.

Sources used in writing this article are available on request.


Information written by the talkhealth team

Last revised: 20 November 2015

Next review: 20 November 2018