A stomach pain can indicate irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a common and harmless condition. But when is it a symptom for something more serious? The Department of Gastroenterology & Hepatology at Singapore General Hospital (SGH) answers.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder which occurs when the nerves of the intestines are oversensitive, which affects the way they function.
A normal amount of gas in the stomach can bring about abdominal discomfort or bloating, which is relieved once the bowels are cleared. Patients may also experience other symptoms, such as constipation and diarrhoea.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects about 10 per cent of Singaporeans, and it doesn’t discriminate between men and women, or the young and old. But it tends to be more commonly seen in people below 50 years of age.
Some patients develop irritable bowel syndrome after a severe gut condition, but most patients with gut infection do not go on to develop the disorder.
How to know if it is a more serious illness
The symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), such as bloating, stomachache, constipation and diarrhoea, could be associated with those of many other disorders.
It is therefore best to consult a doctor to rule out more serious conditions with similar symptoms.
Consult a doctor immediately if you:
- Are distressed by your symptoms
- Develop symptoms for the first time after age 50
- Have a family history of colorectal cancer or inflammatory bowel disease
- Have other symptoms such as rectal bleeding, unintended weight loss, low blood count (anaemia) or diarrhoea that awakens you from sleep
"Irritable bowel syndrome is a common and harmless condition, but it is still little understood and its exact cause is unknown", says
Clinical Assistant Professor Vikneswaran Namasivayam, Consultant,
Department of Gastroenterology & Hepatology from Singapore General Hospital (SGH), a member of the
“The symptoms can be severe at times, but irritable bowel syndrome is not life-threatening and does not lead to serious conditions such as colon cancer,” said Clin Asst Prof Vikneswaran. “Most patients improve once they learn to cope with their symptoms.”
He said that some people with the condition have “intestines that move either faster or slower than normal”, and added that patients are more likely to suffer from stress and anxiety, which aggravate the symptoms. Women also tend to suffer from the symptoms when menstruating.
Treating the symptoms of IBS
Many people go through life without knowing they have the condition if the symptoms are mild. But more people are seeking medical attention, probably because of greater awareness of the condition, said Clin Asst Prof Vikneswaran, noting that irritable bowel syndrome is the most common condition seen at his department.
In most cases, treatment for IBS consists of pain medication to ease the symptoms. Patients are asked to look out for triggers – mostly food and stress – and to avoid them.
Maintaining a food diary can help identify the foods that cause the symptoms. Caffeine, fatty food, alcohol and complex carbohydrates tend to be the culprits, said Dr Vikneswaran.
Otherwise, leading a healthy lifestyle with regular exercise, a balanced diet and a positive attitude helps people with the disorder.
Some people have found that eating yogurt or mint can help. However, yogurt can cause people who are lactose-intolerant to develop symptoms similar to irritable bowel syndrome, said Dr Vikneswaran.
In the case of some patients, eating spicy food often sets off a severe bout of diarrhoea – up to six or seven times a day – and intense stomach cramps. A ready stock of anti-diarrhoea pills helps to keep the symptoms at bay.
Check out our other articles on IBS (irritable bowel syndrome):
IBS in Singapore: More Common Than You Think
IBS: Common Symptoms and Treatments
Have IBS? Try this Low FODMAP Diet
Diet and Lifestyle Tips for IBS
Can Anxiety or Depression Trigger IBS?