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Irritable Bowel Syndrome

By Bjarne Lühr Hansen PhD, MD and Philipp Skafte-Holm MD, Mentor Institute

Irritable bowel syndrome is common and lifelong. The symptoms are stomach pains, a bloated sensation and varying defecations. You can soothe the pains with a diet rich with fibres and regular exercise. Your general practitioner can with a few examinations determine whether you have another illness that requires treatment. Only very few with irritable bowel syndrome need to see a specialist.

Irritable bowel syndrome is a very common bowel disorder It is estimated that 15% of the population has irritable bowel syndrome – women twice as frequently as men. Most contract the illness when they are young or young adults and will suffer from it periodically for the rest of their lives.

Stomach pains or an uncomfortable bloated sensation together with a disturbance in the pattern of defecations with variation between loose and hard stool and soothing when letting go of air or stool are characteristics of irritable bowel syndrome.

The cause of irritable bowel syndrome is unknown. It is assumed that unfavourable interaction between the brain and a hypersensitive intestine plays an important part. We all know about stomach cramps with thin defecation in times of stress (exams, speeches). With patients with irritable bowel syndrome, the intestine overreacts. Even the slightest stress or anxiety can trigger the symptoms. Most people with irritable bowel syndrome know that they are more nervous than others. The symptoms enhances their nervousness and they may become concerned about whether they are seriously ill – for example with cancer in the intestine.

Click to read about how to assess the sick.

What can you do?

You are actually an expert on exactly your intestines. You probably know what causes you to feel bloated and what changes your stool. It can be certain foods or stressed situations. Try to avoid that food or those situations that triggers the symptoms. With some people, it help to eat a diet rich with fibre, while it worsens the symptoms with others. You have to feel your way. Regular exercise is good for most people with irritable bowel syndrome.

You should avoid laxatives – both those that stops defecations and those that softens the stool.

Knowledge about irritable bowel syndrome not being a serious condition is important. At the same time you must pay attention to other symptoms that can cause suspicion of cancer in the intestines. This could be a big unintentional weight loss and blood in the stool.

What can your doctor do?

If your symptoms are not improved, in spite of a diet rich with fibre and regular exercise, you can contact your general practitioner. You should realise that irritable bowel syndrome is a lifelong illness with varying nuisances and without a cure.

If you unintentionally has lost a lot of weight or you discover blood in your stool you should contact your general practitioner immediately.

On the basis of your medical background, a few blood samples and by touching your stomach, you general practitioner determines whether you have a serious bowel disorder that require treatment. The fact alone that the doctor can exclude a serious illness that requires treatment can have a soothing effect on the symptoms.

Furthermore, the doctor can give you advice about diet and exercise. Only exceptional cases require medication for loose stool or constipation.

What can a specialist doctor do?

If you have typical symptoms for irritable bowel syndrome – a bloated sensation, varying defecations and moderate stomach pains, there is no reasons to see a specialist.

If you have other symptoms – for example blood in the stool, weight loss, fever – it can be necessary with further examinations with a specialist.

The specialist can look up into your intestine, using a special rigid tube called an anoscope. The specialist checks for tumours, wounds, bulges and haemorrhoids.

The specialist can exclude serious illness of your intestine requiring treatment but has no effective treatment for irritable bowel syndrome.