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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a functional gastrointestinal disorder and is quite common in adults. It is an embarrassing complaint for many, but luckily it is not dangerous and does not involve the risk of developing a serious condition. 

Symptoms

Typical symptoms of IBS are

  • Bloating, flatulence and stomach pain that worsen towards the evening 
  • Bowel function problems, such as constipation, loose stools or feeling that the bowel doesn’t empty properly.

Symptoms often vary. Stress usually worsens symptoms. Other mental factors may also play a role.

Self-care

IBS is a characteristic rather than a disease. If you’ve been having varying symptoms indicative of IBS for a long period of time, you could test which self-care methods suit you best. The aim of self-care is to reduce problems and make daily life easier. Key to the treatment of IBS are a settled lifestyle and regular meal times. Stress should also be avoided, as it often worsens the symptoms. Exercise and sufficient fibre intake are important, particularly for those with constipation. The FODMAP diet may be helpful especially if you have bloating, flatulence and stomach pain. The aim of the FODMAP diet is to avoid carbohydrates that are not absorbed from the small intestine but which are broken down in the colon. 

A simple way to test the FODMAP diet is to avoid the following foods:

  • Pulses (lentils, beans, peas)
  • Different types of onions 
  • Cabbages (brassicas)
  • Sweets and other products containing xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol or maltitol
  • “Stomach-friendly yoghurts” and “health drinks” containing added fibre, inulin and fructo-oligosaccharides 
  • Lactose (milk sugar) 

When should you seek treatment? 

If the symptoms indicative of IBS are new and troublesome, you should contact the student healthcare service. Assessment by healthcare staff is necessary in the following situations: 

  • You have general symptoms, such as unintentional weight loss and fatigue. 
  • There’s blood in your stools. 
  • Your bowel function has been abnormal for a few weeks (tendency to diarrhoea or constipation). 
  • There’s colon cancer or ovarian cancer in your family.
  • The complaints remain troublesome despite self-care.

Treatment of IBS

If self-care and non-prescription products do not relieve symptoms sufficiently, more effective treatment with prescription medicines can be considered when you see a doctor. Examples are the treatment of constipation and bowel cramps. IBS symptoms can sometimes be managed with medicines that are used in the treatment of depression. In many patients, amitriptyline has been found to reduce pain and tendency to diarrhoea, in particular. Newer antidepressants may also help. Psychological treatments have also provided significant alleviation of symptoms. 

Information sources: The Finnish Medical Society Duodecim: Terveysportti

FSHS Public health nurse / 19 September 2019