Irritable Bowel Syndrome

What is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

If you’ve ever had a stomach ache, you know how uncomfortable it can be. For some people, though, stomach pain is a regular occurrence. This chronic condition is called irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a common problem that affects the large intestine. It can cause cramping, bloating, gas, diarrhoea, and constipation. These symptoms can occur at any time, but they are often worse after eating or during periods of stress.

Some people with IBS also experience anxiety or depression. IBS doesn’t damage bowel tissue or increase your risk of colorectal cancer. While there is no cure for IBS, treatments can help relieve the symptoms. Correctly diagnosing IBS is a crucial first step in developing a treatment plan that allows you to plan your day your way! Not dictated by access to the closest toilets.

Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome

The most common symptoms of IBS are abdominal pain and cramping, bloating, gas, mucus in the stool, and changes in bowel habits. IBS symptoms can range from mild discomfort to painful and disruptive, such as needing to go to the toilet often. The key symptoms that may indicate IBS are:

  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • Alternation between diarrhoea and constipation
  • Feeling that you haven’t finished a bowel movement even after going to the toilet
  • Abdominal bloating and swelling – as if you are 9 month pregnant

IBS is a chronic condition, meaning it can last for months or years. The exact cause of IBS is unknown, but factors such as diet, stress, gut microbiota and genetics may play a role. People with IBS often find that their symptoms are worse during periods of anxiety or stress. Typically, it affects women more than men. While there is no cure, there are treatments that can help to manage the symptoms. These include dietary changes, stress management, and medication.

When should I see a doctor?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as the severity and frequency of symptoms can vary from person to person. However, it is vital to seek medical advice if you are experiencing symptoms regularly. Seeking medical help will ensure that your symptoms are correctly diagnosed and not point to other conditions, such as coeliac disease or microscopic colitis.

In addition, remember that IBS is a chronic condition, which means that symptoms may flare up at certain times and then subside for periods of time. If you are struggling to manage your symptoms, don’t hesitate to see your doctor, who can refer you for tests, including an investigation of the stomach or bowel via a gastroscopy or colonoscopy.

How is IBS treated?

IBS can severely impact an individual’s quality of life, making it difficult to work, socialise, and even travel. Most people with IBS can manage their symptoms with diet and lifestyle changes. However, some people may require medication to improve symptoms. Treatments for IBS is a collaborative process. It involves understanding of your mental health status, potential dietary triggers and alteration in the gut microbiome.

Medical treatments typically involve the use of medication to relieve gut symptoms. Commonly used medications include antispasmodics, which help relieve abdominal pain, and stool softeners or bulking agents to regulate bowel movements. Depending on your diagnosis and specific symptoms, medications can include:

  • Stool softeners for constipation
  • Soluble fibres as a bulking agent +/- Anti-diarrhoea medication
  • Antispasmodic agent such as peppermint to ease cramping
  • Tricyclic antidepressants to treat severe abdominal pain, diarrhoea and anxiety

In addition to medication, several lifestyle changes can help relieve IBS symptoms. Making these lifestyle changes can be an effective way to reduce the frequency and severity of IBS symptoms. These include stress management techniques, such as relaxation therapy or yoga. Some people may benefit from specialist psychologist input. Specific diet recommendation should come from an experienced dietician after a thorough review of your food and symptom dairy.

Dr Lee takes a whole-of-patient approach and tries to understand if triggers such as anxiety or depression would be best treated by the appropriate specialist, such as a psychologist.

Diagnosing Irritable Bowel Syndrome


A gastroscopy, or upper endoscopy, may be performed if you have symptoms including heartburn and indigestion and if coeliac disease is suspected.

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A colonoscopy may be performed to look for signs of blockage or inflammation in your intestines.

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Stool Tests

Stool tests look for blood or infections and are more commonly used when inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is suspected.


Take back your quality of life

Dr Thomas Lee is an expert gastroenterologist who can accurately diagnose your symptoms and provide a treatment plan that helps you get back to doing the things you love.