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Irritable Bowel Syndrome, commonly known as IBS, is a prevalent gastrointestinal disorder that affects millions of people worldwide.

Characterized by a cluster of symptoms, IBS can significantly impact an individual’s quality of life.

In this comprehensive guide, we will delve deep into the world of IBS, exploring its symptoms, potential causes, diagnostic methods, and various management strategies.


Understanding IBS: What Is It?


Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a functional gastrointestinal disorder, meaning it primarily affects how the digestive system works rather than causing structural abnormalities or damage.

It’s often referred to as a “syndrome” because it encompasses a variety of symptoms that can vary in intensity and duration.


Key Points About IBS:


  • Common Condition: IBS is one of the most common gastrointestinal disorders worldwide, affecting people of all ages, though it’s more prevalent in women and typically begins during adolescence or early adulthood.
  • Chronic Disorder: IBS is a chronic condition, which means it may persist for an extended period, even throughout an individual’s lifetime.
  • Functional Disorder: As a functional disorder, IBS does not cause physical damage to the digestive tract, making it different from some other gastrointestinal conditions.

irritable bowel syndrome symptoms - Decoding Irritable Bowel Syndrome


Symptoms of IBS


IBS is characterized by a range of gastrointestinal symptoms.

The hallmark of IBS is abdominal discomfort or pain, which is often accompanied by changes in bowel habits.

Common symptoms of IBS include:

  1. Abdominal Pain or Discomfort: This is a prevalent symptom and is typically described as cramping or aching. The pain is often relieved after a bowel movement.
  2. Altered Bowel Habits: IBS can lead to changes in stool frequency and consistency, including diarrhea, constipation, or alternating between the two.
  3. Bloating and Gas: Many individuals with IBS experience bloating and increased gas production, leading to abdominal distension.
  4. Urgency: Some people with IBS have a sudden and urgent need to have a bowel movement, which can be challenging to control.
  5. Mucus in Stool: The presence of mucus in the stool is common in IBS.
  6. Incomplete Evacuation: A feeling of not completely emptying the bowels after a bowel movement can occur in IBS.
  7. Relief with Bowel Movements: Symptoms like abdominal pain and discomfort are often relieved or improved after a bowel movement.
  8. Change in Stool Appearance: IBS can cause stools to become harder or looser than usual.

It’s important to note that the severity and combination of these symptoms can vary widely among individuals with IBS.

Some may predominantly experience diarrhea (IBS-D), while others primarily have constipation (IBS-C). Some individuals may experience alternating periods of both (IBS-M).

irritable bowel symptoms - Decoding Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Subtypes of IBS


The main subtypes of IBS are:

  • IBS-D (Diarrhea-Predominant IBS): Characterized by frequent episodes of diarrhea, loose or watery stools, and urgency.
  • IBS-C (Constipation-Predominant IBS): Marked by infrequent bowel movements, hard or lumpy stools, and difficulty passing stools.
  • IBS-M (Mixed IBS): Involves a combination of diarrhea and constipation, with alternating periods of each.
  • IBS-U (Unsubtyped IBS): Used when the symptoms do not fit the criteria for any specific subtype.


Causes and Triggers of IBS


The exact cause of IBS is not fully understood, and it likely involves a combination of factors. Potential contributors to the development of IBS include:

  1. Altered Gut Motility: Abnormalities in the way the muscles in the digestive tract contract and move food and waste materials may play a role in IBS. 
  2. Gut-Brain Interaction: The gut and brain are closely connected, and stress, anxiety, and emotions can influence gut function and symptoms in individuals with IBS. 
  3. Microbiome: The balance of bacteria in the gut, known as the gut microbiome, may be altered in some people with IBS. 
  4. Inflammation: Low-level inflammation in the intestines has been observed in some individuals with IBS, particularly in those with IBS-D. 
  5. Food Sensitivities: Certain foods or food components, such as fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols (FODMAPs), can trigger or exacerbate symptoms in some individuals.


Risk Factors and Demographics


While IBS can affect people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds, several factors and demographics are associated with a higher risk of developing the condition:

  • Gender: IBS is more common in women than in men, with a higher prevalence among females of reproductive age.
  • Age: Although IBS can occur at any age, it often starts in adolescence or early adulthood.
  • Family History: A family history of IBS or other gastrointestinal disorders may increase the risk.
  • Psychological Factors: Stress, anxiety, and depression are associated with IBS, and these conditions may contribute to symptom exacerbation.
  • Prior Gastrointestinal Infections: Individuals who have experienced previous gastrointestinal infections, such as food poisoning, may have an increased risk of developing IBS.
  • Dietary Factors: Consumption of certain foods, particularly high-FODMAP foods, can trigger or worsen symptoms in some individuals.

Diagnosing IBS


Diagnosing IBS can be challenging because there are no specific tests or markers for the condition.

The diagnostic process often involves the following steps:

  1. Medical History: The healthcare provider will ask about the patient’s symptoms, including the type of bowel habits, the duration and frequency of symptoms, and any factors that worsen or alleviate them.
  2. Physical Examination: A physical examination may be performed to rule out other potential causes of symptoms.
  3. Rome Criteria: The Rome IV criteria are widely used to diagnose IBS. These criteria require the presence of abdominal pain or discomfort for at least three days per month in the last three months, associated with two or more of the following:
  • Improvement with defecation.
  • Onset associated with a change in frequency of stool.
  • Onset associated with a change in form (appearance) of stool.
  1. Additional Tests: Depending on the presentation and features of the symptoms, additional tests may be ordered to rule out other conditions. These tests can include blood tests, stool tests, and imaging studies such as colonoscopies, CT scans and Sigmoidoscopy.

It’s important to note that the diagnosis of IBS is one of exclusion, meaning other potential gastrointestinal conditions should be ruled out before a definitive diagnosis of IBS is made.


irritable bowel diagnosis - Decoding Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Treatment Options for IBS


The management of IBS aims to alleviate symptoms, improve quality of life, and address any underlying contributing factors.

Treatment options for IBS are typically tailored to the individual’s specific symptoms and subtype of IBS. Common approaches include:


A. Lifestyle Modifications

Dietary Changes: Many individuals with IBS find relief from symptoms by making dietary adjustments. Common dietary strategies include:

  1. Low-FODMAP Diet: Reducing or eliminating high-FODMAP foods, which can trigger symptoms in some individuals.
  2. Fiber: Increasing dietary fiber intake, particularly soluble fiber, to help regulate bowel movements.
  3. Food Diary: Keeping a food diary to identify specific trigger foods and avoiding them.
  4. Stress Management Techniques: Stress and anxiety can exacerbate IBS symptoms. Techniques such as relaxation exercises, meditation, yoga, and mindfulness can be beneficial.
  5. Regular Exercise: Engaging in regular physical activity can help regulate bowel function and reduce stress.

B. Medications

  1. Antispasmodics: These medications help relieve abdominal cramping and pain by relaxing the muscles in the digestive tract.
  2. Antidiarrheal Agents: For individuals with IBS-D, medications like loperamide can help control diarrhea.
  3. Laxatives: In cases of IBS-C, laxatives may be used to relieve constipation.
  4. Probiotics: Some individuals find relief from IBS symptoms by taking probiotics, which can help regulate gut bacteria.
  5. Low-Dose Tricyclic Antidepressants: These medications can be used to alleviate abdominal pain and improve overall well-being in some cases of IBS.

C. Psychological Therapies

  1. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT can help individuals manage stress, anxiety, and symptoms associated with IBS.
  2. Gut-Directed Hypnotherapy: Hypnotherapy techniques specifically targeted at improving gut function and reducing IBS symptoms.

D. Complementary and Alternative Therapies

  1. Herbal Remedies: Some herbal supplements, such as peppermint oil and ginger, may provide relief from IBS symptoms.
  2. Acupuncture: Acupuncture has been explored as a complementary therapy for managing IBS symptoms.


irritable bowel foods - Decoding Irritable Bowel Syndrome



Living with IBS requires patience, self-awareness, and a willingness to adapt to individual triggers and management strategies.

With the right guidance and support, individuals with IBS can lead fulfilling lives and effectively manage their symptoms.

It’s also essential to stay informed about the latest developments in IBS research and treatment options to make informed decisions about your health and well-being.


Contact Dr. Schneider


Dr. Schneider is located at the Mill Park Hospital, Parktown, Johannesburg.

Services offered include consultation, and endoscopy procedures, including gastroscopy, colonoscopy and video capsule endoscopy.

For more information on the diagnosis and treatment of gluten intolerance in Johannesburg, contact Dr. Schneider or book your consultation today.


The information on this website is to provide general guidance. In no way does any of the information provided reflect definitive medical advice and self-diagnoses should not be made based on information obtained online. It is important to consult a Gastroenterologist or medical doctor regarding ANY and ALL symptoms or signs including, but not limited to: abdominal pain, haemorrhoids or anal / rectal bleeding as it may a sign of a serious illness or condition. A thorough consultation and examination should ALWAYS be performed for an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan. Be sure to call a physician or call our office today and schedule a consultation.