What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is one of the most common gastrointestinal disorders worldwide.

It is a chronic, functional disorder of the gastrointestinal tract that comprises the following symptoms:

  • abdominal pain or discomfort of the lower abdomen

  • bloating

  • disruptions in defecation

Although symptoms are predominantly gastrointestinal, other symptoms can include:

  • backache


  • heartburn

  • lethargy

  • urinary problems

  • faintness

  • palpitations

  • loss of appetite

Symptoms are usually worse after eating and most people experience ‘flare-ups’ lasting between 2-4 days.

A key characteristic of IBS is a cycle of relapse and remission (Silk, 2003).


Worldwide, IBS affects approximately 10-20% of the population at any one time, although this figure may be higher because not everyone seeks help for the condition (Hungin et al., 2005).

IBS can affect both genders of all ages, although it is twice as common in females (Voci and Cramer, 2009).

It can occur at any age, but typically develops in individuals who are 20-30 years old (Wangen, 2006), with incidence reducing with age (Wilson et al., 2004).


Despite there being no clear cause for IBS, there is a general consensus that it is a multifactorial disorder of a biopsychosocial nature (Allison, 2002).

Possible factors involved in its development include:

  • an abnormality with how the muscles move food through the digestive tract

  • pain-sensitive digestive organs

  • a malfunctioning immune system

  • a problem with communication between the central nervous system and the digestive system

  • an abnormal response to infection.

Environmental, dietary, and genetic factors are also suspected to play a role in the aetiology of IBS.


A diagnosis of IBS can be made using the Rome III criteria of ‘red flag’ symptoms (Paterson et al., 1999).

According to these criteria, an individual is diagnosed with IBS if they have experienced, for at least 6-months, any of the following symptoms:

  • abdominal pain or discomfort

  • bloating

  • change in bowel habit

In addition, the individual has to report abdominal pain or discomfort that ceases upon defecation or is associated with changes in bowel frequency or stool formation, and have at least two of the following:

  • altered stool evacuation (i.e. straining, urgency, incomplete evacuation)

  • abdominal bloating (i.e. distension, tension, or hardness)

  • symptoms made worse by eating

  • mucus from the rectum


There is no cure for IBS, but it can be managed and controlled through lifestyle changes and medicine.

The treatment and management of IBS is largely focused on providing individuals with the information required to self-manage their condition through diet, physical activity, and medication for specific symptoms.

Due to there being no clear cause for IBS, stigma still exists regarding its seriousness, which can prevent people seeking medical support.

In order to reduce the impact of this common, quality of life depleting illness, healthcare professionals need to take it seriously and assist patients in the long-term management of the physically and psychologically limiting symptoms.

Categories: Health

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4 replies

  1. I was hoping that you would make some suggestions as to how to advise people to mange IBS?

  2. Hi Fiona,

    Managing IBS can be a continuous cycle of trial and error, especially in terms of learning which foods exacerbate the symptoms. I would recommend keeping a food and symptom diary. Sounds simplistic, but it is the only way to identify patterns in symptomology. Psychological techniques for stress reduction, emotion identification, and learning to listen to the body are great for IBS, which is where some of the work you do can be extremely beneficial to IBS sufferers!

  3. Fiona, would you mind if I added a link to your services on my blog?

  4. IBS is extremely common in people who have taken psych meds. Do you think this is due to SE of meds or purely biopsychosocial factors? I did not suffer from IBS until I was in my mid 40s which coincided with psych meds.

    I find eating prunes a more gentle and natural cure for constipation but haven’t found a natural cure for the other extreme of the condition, Any suggestions?

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