Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a relatively common gastrointestinal disorder. It is a long-term disease associated with constipation, diarrhoea, irregular bowel habits, bloating, and abdominal pain. According to Epidemiological data collected by UK researchers, the average global prevalence of IBS stands at 11%. Other sources report a prevalence of up to 22% depending on the diagnosis criteria. A large cohort of these individuals has minor and manageable symptoms. However, some patients may experience severe and persistent symptoms that necessitate medical intervention.
Causes of Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Age (below 50 years), sex (women), genetics, and mental health appear to be risk factors. Although the precise cause of Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a mystery, potential causative factors include:
- Nervous System – Poorly coordinated and unusual levels of hormones associated with the digestive tract (especially during menstruation). Abnormalities with neurotransmitters may also worsen symptoms of IBS.
- Infections – Intestinal inflammation, bacterial overgrowth, or bacterial gastroenteritis (irritation of the digestive tract by parasites, bacteria, or viral infection) may trigger IBS.
- Hypersensitivity – People with a low pain threshold may be diagnosed with IBS due to cramping and bloating.
- Environmental factors – Psychological stress in our daily lives may be expressed as physical symptoms identifiable with IBS
- Diet and Lifestyle – Sensitivity to certain beverages and foods
Signs and Symptoms
What are the most common symptoms people with IBS suffer from? Although the signs and symptoms of IBS vary considerably, the most common include:
- Constipation and/or diarrhoea
- Bloating, cramping, or abdominal pain before using the toilet
- Excess gas and changing bowel habits
- Mucus in the stool
While the symptoms above are considered mild, an individual may experience severe signs such as difficulty swallowing, unexplained vomiting, rectal bleeding, weight loss, anaemia, and persistent pain. If you encounter one of these signs, it is highly recommended that you visit a health facility – it might a more severe condition such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.
The symptoms of IBS are not confined to the intestines; patients may report irregular menses, sexual dysfunction, muscle and joint pain, headaches, halitosis (bad breath), persistent fatigue, frequent urination, and even depression.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Which tests will a doctor use to confirm and determine the severity of IBS? The answer is relative – there is no definitive test to diagnose IBS. Instead, doctors use an elimination method to rule out other conditions. When you visit a healthcare facility, the medical practitioner is likely to take notes on your medical history. A person diagnosed with IBS must have experienced abdominal pain at least once every week over the last 3 months. Other diagnosis criteria include changes in bowel movements, characteristics of the abdominal pain, and back pains. If the symptoms are severe, you may have to undergo imaging and laboratory tests as a precaution against more severe conditions.
Unfortunately, IBS does not have a cure – treatment methods focus on alleviating the symptoms. Conventional interventions include:
- Pharmaceutical Medication – Pain medication, Tricyclic antidepressants, anticholinergics, anti-diarrheal medication, laxatives, and fibre supplements.
- Physiological therapy – Cognitive behavioural therapy, psychodynamic interpersonal therapy, and hypnotherapy
- Lifestyle interventions – Mindful dietary changes and regular exercise.
Alternative Treatments – Acupuncture
The Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) approach to treatment is on a symptom-by-symptom basis. Rather than suggesting a “one size fits all” solution, TCM is more concerned with the underlying causative factors and holism. This principle makes acupuncture a promising solution to alleviate the symptoms of IBS and improve the patient’s quality of life. Specifically, acupuncture is known to provide pain relief, improve the sensory threshold, reduce depression and anxiety, increase parasympathetic tone (nervous system), and improve digestion.
Scientific studies (1) have shown that the age-old principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture treatment are effective interventions for a wide range of medical issues including IBS. A meta-analysis (2) published in the prestigious World Journal of Gastroenterology concluded that “acupuncture exhibits clinically and statistically significant control of IBS symptoms.” According to the British Acupuncture Council, acupuncture can be effectively and safely combined with conventional Western treatments and other alternative treatments (psychotherapy, herbal medicine, biomedicine etc.). Therefore, if you have experienced one or more of the symptoms highlighted in the article, acupuncture treatment is worth a try.
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- Spira, A. (2008). Acupuncture: A useful tool for health care in an operational medicine environment. Military medicine, 173(7), 629-634.
- Chao, G. Q., & Zhang, S. (2014). Effectiveness of acupuncture to treat irritable bowel syndrome: a meta-analysis. World Journal of Gastroenterology: WJG, 20(7), 1871.