The Complete Guide to Managing Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): Symptoms, Triggers, and Therapies

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (more commonly known as IBS) is the most common disorder of the human digestive tract and a medical condition that is still misunderstood by many people. Currently, approximately 20% of the Australian population experience IBS symptoms, with women being three times more likely to experience IBS. In this article, we’ll highlight what IBS is, its symptoms, how it is diagnosed, and the treatment and management options.


So, What is IBS?  

IBS is a collection of symptoms that result from abnormal functioning in the small and/or large bowel. With IBS, you have these symptoms without any visible signs of damage or disease in your digestive tract.

IBS is known as a functional gastrointestinal disorder, a disorder related to the gut-brain interaction, meaning problems with how the brain and gut work together. These problems can cause the gut to be more sensitive and change how the muscles in the bowel contract. This change in sensitivity and how the bowel muscles work leads to the symptoms we see with IBS.

picture of stomach and IBS

Signs & Symptoms of ibs

IBS can affect each individual differently, with symptom severity varying from person to person. Some people may only experience a few symptoms or all of them. Common symptoms include:

  • Abdominal Pain
  • Bloating or cramping in the abdominal region
  • Diarrhoea
  • Constipation
  • The feeling you haven’t finished a bowel movement
  • Whitish mucous in your stool

People with IBS may also experience symptoms unrelated to the intestine, such as:  

  • Migraine headaches
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Fibromyalgia (widespread muscle pain and tenderness)
  • Chronic Pelvic Pain
IBS Symptoms

What Causes IBS?  

Doctors aren’t exactly sure what causes IBS. Experts think a combination of factors may lead to a change in how the brain and gut interact. The different factors may cause IBS in different people; some factors include:

  • Food intolerances or sensitivities
  • Stressful or difficult early life events
  • Certain mental disorders
  • Bacterial infections of the digestive tract
  • Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth- an increase or change to the bacteria in the small intestine

IBS Treatment Options  

The exact cause of IBS has not been clearly identified, so there is no universally accepted treatment protocol. As such, a multifaceted and often multidisciplinary approach has been found to be the most effective method of management. The most common recommendation is identifying and avoiding triggers. Other treatment options may include:

Medical Management

Your symptoms may respond to different dietary modification options;

  • Increase fibre intake
  • Moderating common gas-producing foods
  • Avoiding gluten- some people with IBS experience more symptoms when eating gluten, even if they do not have celiac disease
  • Low FODMAP diet- this involves reducing or avoiding certain foods that contain carbohydrates that are hard to digest

Working with a nutritionist is always recommended to ensure you still get all the nutrients you need, no matter your diet.  

IBS Diet and Nutrition

Eating, Diet and Nutrition

Your symptoms may also require medication, such as:  

  • Medication to control symptoms of IBS, such as anti-diarrhoea medication, laxatives or anti-spasmodic medication to relieve cramping
  • Tricyclic antidepressants can be effective in treating pain, bloating, and bowel frequency in IBS, but this does not mean that IBS is caused by depression or anxiety

Mental Health and Allied Therapies

  • Psychological therapies: Cognitive behavioural therapy and gut-directed hypnotherapy. A trained psychologist should guide these treatments.  
  • Behavioural and pelvic floor therapies: Often, symptoms of IBS can be caused by the inability to defecate effectively; trained pelvic floor therapists, like a pelvic floor physiotherapist or osteopath, can treat this effectively   

Multidisciplinary Care Team

People with gastrointestinal disorders like IBS have been found to have greater symptom relief and improved well-being when treatment and management involve a multidisciplinary care team. A care team may include: 

  • Dietitians  
  • Hypnotherapists  
  • Psychologists  
  • Pelvic Floor Allied Health Clinicians  
  • Nurse Specialists  

This care team will aim to improve the patient’s quality of life by addressing all aspects of irritable bowel syndrome.

Want to learn more about IBS?  

Dr Michael Caruana
BHSc / BAppSc (Osteo) OA Member

Dr Michael Caruana (Osteopath)

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