With as many as one in ten people thought to be affected by irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), experts are now talking about an ‘epidemic’.The disorder, which is characterised by gut pain, bloating and diarrhoea, can be triggered by a bout of food poisoning or antibiotics, but often there may be no obvious cause.Some studies suggest a genetic link; Irritable Bowel Syndrome is also strongly associated with stress and anxiety – modern, hectic lifestyles and poor diet have been blamed for the rise in numbers of those affected.
But there are concerns that the condition is being overdiagnosed and, as a result, other, more serious conditions are being missed.A study by the University of Nottingham and John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, last year found that one in ten people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) – including Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis – was initially misdiagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Other conditions that can be mistaken for IBS include bowel, stomach and ovarian cancer, as well as endometriosis (where womb-like tissue grows elsewhere in the body) and coeliac disease (an adverse reaction to gluten). Part of the problem is that IBS is a syndrome – a selection of symptoms – with no definitive test to rule it in or out
James Hennessey, 33, pictured right, who works for a youth charity, lives with his wife, Sarah, 32, a GP, and their 21-month-old son in the Wirral. He says:For too long my doctors seemed to assume my pain couldn’t be anything serious because I was young – in fact, by the time I was correctly diagnosed I had a tumour blocking 85 per cent of my bowel.I’d gone to my GP after several months of feeling constipated and discomfort across my lower abdomen.
He said it sounded like Irritable Bowel Syndrome and asked if anything stressful was going on – we’d just moved house and had a baby, and I was having a bit of a hard time where I was working, so the answer was yes.I was given painkillers and laxatives – which I now know was pretty much the worst thing, as the laxatives just put more pressure on the gut, making the pain worse.Over the next two years, I was going back to the GP about every six months. I had regular blood tests and these came back clear every time.But twice the pain was so bad that I went to A&E. I’m an ex-rugby player and have broken 13 bones in my body, so I’m OK with pain – but this had me curled up in a ball and crying.