WHAT IS IRRITABLE BOWEL SYNDROME?


3 min read

I have an issue with the 'diagnosis' of Irritable Bowel Syndrome ...

So excuse me whilst I have a bit of a rant.

Ok. Here goes.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a medical term used to describe a collection of bowel related issues such as constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, wind and/or abdominal cramps.

But IBS is not really a diagnosis.

When symptoms are used to identify the cause of a disease. That’s a proper diagnosis.

When no one has been able to find out what’s wrong with you and you’re given a shorthand term to describe your symptoms. That’s not.

That might not make a lot of sense.

But think of it this way ...

You went to the doctor complaining of your own particular combination of bloating, wind, constipation, diarrhoea and/or abdominal pain.

The doctor may have examined you and arranged all manner of tests to rule out the scary things like bowel cancer and Crohn’s disease. Then, when nothing was found to be wrong, diagnosed you with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Or the diagnosis of IBS may have been made based on your symptoms without any examination or testing. This happens a lot.

Obviously, if you’ve had tests done, it’s good to know that you don't have any of the scary things.

Either way, you now have a name for what you’re experiencing - but let’s be honest, are you really any the wiser? Being told that you have Irritable Bowel Syndrome doesn’t tell you anything that you didn’t know already.

You went to the doctor because your bowels were 'irritable' and you were told that you have irritable bowels. (Btw I have a wonderful GP so this is not an attack on GPs.)

You now have a medical term for it. But how does that help you? And what does it really mean?

It means that you can say ‘I’ve got Irritable Bowel Syndrome.’ But that’s just shorthand for ‘I keep running to the loo/don’t go for days/swell up like I’m 6 months pregnant/get weird pains in my belly/have lots of wind etc.”

It’s a bit like going to the doctor because you’ve been feeling shattered for months and being diagnosed with ‘Chronic Fatigue’. ‘Chronic Fatigue’ is just another way of saying ‘tired for a long time”.

So no news there!

Or going to the doctor with itchy skin and being diagnosed with Idiopathic Pruritus.

That sounds serious. 

I wouldn’t want to catch Idiopathic Pruritus.

But idiopathic means ‘of no know origin’ and pruritus means ‘itchy skin’. So they might as well say ‘we don’t know why you’ve got itchy skin - but you’ve got itchy skin.’ Or why not call it ‘Itchy Skin Syndrome’? It’s all the same. It’s just a way of describing what you’re experiencing.

And that’s what “Irritable Bowel Syndrome” is. It’s just a name that describes what you’re experiencing, given as a ‘diagnosis’ when doctors can’t find any underlying cause.

On the plus-side, at least the doctor has acknowledged that you’re having bowel problems. But if you don’t know what’s causing them, or how to treat them, what help is the ‘diagnosis’ to you?

Most people like to have a name for what they're experiencing. 

That's understandable.

“I don’t just have pain that travels around my body. I have Fibromyalgia.’

‘I don’t just have a sore foot. I have Plantar fasciitis.” 

“I don’t just have a dodgy tummy. I have Irritable Bowel Syndrome.’

It’s true. There can be comfort in having a name for our pain.

Many people diagnosed with IBS are so relieved to have a name for their bowel problem that they think they now have an explanation for their symptoms.

In their mind the IBS becomes the cause of the symptoms. Not the name of the symptoms themselves.

So when asked, someone may say “Well yes I’m quite constipated - but that’s because I’ve got IBS.’

Or “I get really bloated when my IBS flares up’.

But if the term ‘Irritable Bowel Syndrome’ is shorthand for a collection of bowel problems, including constipation and bloating, then the terms should be interchangeable.

So “Well yes I’m quite constipated - but that’s because I’ve got IBS.”  could be changed to “Well yes I’m quite constipated - but that’s because I’ve got constipation.”

And ‘I get really bloated when my IBS flares up.’ could be changed to ‘I get really bloated when my bloating plays up’. Which makes no sense at all.

So ... going back to your diagnosis of IBS.

You may have been told it’s down to stress.

Stress certainly can be a factor. But either you do feel stressed - and have no idea what to do about it. Or you don’t feel stressed - and have no idea what to do about it. It’s unlikely that anyone has looked closely at your diet or lifestyle. Doctors don’t have the time. They’re too busy dealing with more serious issues. And they don’t have time to explain about the simple diet and lifestyle changes which you can make that can dramatically reduce stress, constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, wind and/or abdominal cramps. Or about the link between Food Intolerances and IBS symptoms. 

So you’re either told to deal with your IBS yourself. Or your sent off with a prescription to manage the symptoms.

You take the medication.

The symptoms may or may not get better.

But either way if you stop taking the medication the symptoms come back.

You still have the constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, wind and/or abdominal cramps.

You still have an irritable bowel.

You still have IBS.

All in all the diagnosis of IBS has been little or no help to you.

When I’m helping clients the one thing I don’t do is diagnose.

I’m not so interested in the medical terms given to describe symptoms. I’m more interested in the symptoms themselves. If a client says that they have been diagnosed with IBS I want to know what they’re experiencing. Which particular combination of constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, wind and/or abdominal cramps do they have?

I want to know what they’re eating and drinking. How they eat. When they eat. What types of stress are they under? (You’ll be surprised at how many sources of stress there are.)

Often my clients have been lead to believe that IBS is something that you can only manage or put up with.

Not something that you can stop.

When I talk about the individual symptoms, explain what may be causing them and help the person to understand that there are things that they can do to stop them … my client can feel empowered to make those changes and that can have a much more positive outcome for them.

So why do I use the term Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Why would I do that when I have such an issue with it?

Why not say constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, wind and/or abdominal cramps?

Well … partly because Irritable Bowel Syndrome and IBS are quicker to type, quicker to read, and quicker to say. 

Might sound like a cop-out but there you have it …!

But maybe that's how you found your way to my website today. And that can only be a good thing!