April is Irritable Bowel Syndrome Awareness Month, and for a condition that affects about 25 percent of Australians during their lifetime, there sure is a lot of stigma around IBS.
Whether you’re afraid to go out and socialise because of unpredictable bowel movements, or you’re so “backed up” that your tummy feels like you’ve swallowed a bowling ball, the negative impact IBS can have on one’s life is far-reaching.
So how can we better understand what’s normal, and what’s not when it comes to our bathroom habits?
Symptoms of IBS
Dr. Emma Rees, GP Specialist in women’s health and founder of digital healthcare solution, Femma, says IBS is a condition that affects the large bowel. It is also relatively common.
“Sufferers experience a variety of symptoms, and for each person, they may be slightly different. It affects how the bowel functions,” Dr. Emma tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
“Common symptoms include abdominal cramps which improve by passing wind or opening the bowels, feeling bloated or fluctuating between diarrhoea and constipation.
“Some people will have mixed constipation and diarrhoea, some will have constipation dominant symptoms (IBS-C) and others will have diarrhoea dominant symptoms (IBS-D).
“You may also find you move between types of IBS throughout your life. Irritable bowel syndrome doesn’t cause bleeding or weight loss and symptoms of bleeding should always be investigated for other causes.”
How IBS Is Diagnosed
If the first thing you do when you arrive at an event is scan the room to see where the bathrooms are, it’s time to get a diagnosis.
And when it comes to being diagnosed with IBS, Dr. Emma says it’s a process of elimination (pardon the pun).
“IBS is a clinical diagnosis,” she explains. “This means that it is usually diagnosed by a detailed history from the sufferer and excluding other causes for symptoms.”
Dr. Emma advises that keeping a symptom diary can be incredibly helpful when making this diagnosis.
“There is no particular test that can be arranged that will give the diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome. It is sometimes relatively straightforward, but should include an examination and may also include blood tests, stool samples, and even internal examinations using colonoscopies to rule out other conditions.
“If you have unusual symptoms or are in a group considered at risk of other conditions, you will generally find your doctor requests tests before diagnosing IBS.”
Managing IBS isn’t easy, and while it can be frustrating, keeping a symptom diary can be useful in identifying potential triggers for symptoms and, just as importantly, things that don’t trigger symptoms.
When you’re feeling good and your tummy is happy, take note of those foods and drinks you’ve been enjoying, and when your tummy isn’t happy, take note of the same. A pattern may emerge that shows what is triggering the issues.
“It is really important to ensure you have plenty of fluids to avoid constipation and keep your bowel moving, gentle exercise can also be useful for this,” Dr. Emma advises.
“Dieticians have a wealth of knowledge about how to increase dietary fibre and how to safely avoid foods and liquids that trigger symptoms. They may even suggest FODMAP diets (diets that avoid certain sugars that the bowel may have problems processing.)
“If you are considering embarking on a FODMAP diet, please only do so under the guidance of a trained dietician who will also help you to safely reintroduce these components into your diet.
“Certain medications may be recommended by your doctor or pharmacist for specific symptoms such as diarrhoea, constipation, and cramping.”
Improving Quality of Life
Psychologists can also have a role in helping to manage IBS, as can physiotherapists specialising in the pelvic floor.
“Unfortunately, many people believe that a diagnosis of IBS equates to being fobbed off,” says Dr. Emma. “However, it is an acknowledgement that the bowel isn’t functioning correctly and will benefit from the expertise and support of a skilled multidisciplinary team of professionals to limit the impact of the condition on someone’s quality of life.”
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