Common Myths About Irritable Bowel Syndrome

In 2013, I was provisionally diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) after no other cause for my chronic abdominal pain and alternating diarrhea and constipation had been found. I don’t have a severe case of it, having mild to moderate abdominal pain a few times a week but rarely severe pain. I am usually not significantly disabled by my symptoms either. I also happen to respond quite well to mebeverine (Colofab), an antispasmodic that relaxes the bowel muscles. Nonetheless, it is frustrating that there are still many common misconceptions about IBS. Here, I will share some of these.

1. IBS is just a fancy way of saying abdominal pain. It is true that the diagnosis of IBS is commonly based on symptom assessments and exclusion of other disorders, since there is no laboratory test to prove someone has IBS. However, IBS has many symptoms other than abdominal pain, and besides, the abdominal pain suffered by IBS patients is chronic and can be severe. It is not like, if you have bowel cramps for a day, you have IBS. Other core symptoms of IBS are diarrhea and/or constipation, feeling bloated, straining or urgency to defecate. Many sufferers have additional fatigue, acid reflux, etc.

2. IBS is all in the head. It is unclear what causes IBS, and stress could be a factor. That doesn’t mean it’s all in the head though. Stress can cause physical symptoms that are no less real just because stress causes them. It is also correct that IBS is associated with problems in the communication between the brain and the gut, but that could be both a brain and a gut problem. For example, people with IBS may be hypersensitive to abdominal discomfort. This however does not mean they choose to be in pain or are overreacting. It is an interplay between biological and psychosocial factors that cause people to experience the symptoms of IBS.

3. There is no clear definition of iBS. Like I said, there is no test for IBS, but there is a definition. For several decades, the Rome criteria have been in use for determining who has IBS. These criteria require that patients have had recurrent abdominal pain or discomfort at least three days per month during the previous three months that is associated with two
or more of the following:

  • Relieved by defecation.

  • Onset associated with a change in stool frequency.

  • Onset associated with a change in stool form or appearance.

When these criteria are met, only limited tests are recommended based on the individual’s situation. In my own case, it was hard to determine whether I met these criteria, as my pain certainly wasn’t relieved by defecation and I wasn’t sure of the other two.

4. IBS is caused by poor diet and lifestyle. Just [insert lifestyle habit or diet here] and you’ll be fine. While some people have food sensitivities that contribute to their abdominal discomfort, others do not. Also, indeed, some people find that exercisng more, not drinking alcohol, not smoking, etc. helps them. Others do not. Besides, even for those who do find that their diet or lifestyle contributes to their IBS symptoms, it may not be easy or may even be extremely hard to adjust their lifestyle or diet. I for one seem to be sensitive to sugary foods, but, as regular readers of my blog will know, I cannot seem to stop eating too much candy.

5. My [family member’s, friend’s, …] IBS was cured by [intervention], so yours can be cured too. Every person with IBS is different, and because many things contribute to IBS symptoms, there are many possible treatments. Mebeverine, the antispasmodic I use on occasion, has few side effects, but also is not very effective with most people. I am lucky that it helps me somewhat, but others wll not find relief from their symptoms with it. Same for diet, lifestyle changes, other medications (eg. antidepressants), psychological interventions, etc. They work for some but not othes.

6. IBS is the same as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Inflammatory bowel disease refers to Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis. These are diseases which cause chronic inflammation to the digestive tract. Though some IBS sufferers have minor inflammation, especially if their symptoms set on after infection, it is not nearly as bad as with IBD. I for one had elevated calprotectin, an inflammation marker, when I was first tested for this. This led the doctor to think I might have IBD and get me a colonoscopy. Turns out I didn’t have IBD and on later tests, my calprotectin was normal again. It could’ve been I had an infection contributing to my symptoms.

7. IBS increases the risk of colon cancer. This is another difference between IBS and IBD: while IBD patients have a markedly increased risk of developing colon cancer, IBS patients do not.

8. IBS is not a serious concern. It is true, like I said above, that IBS does not cause cancer or suchlike. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not serious. Many people with irritable bowel syndrome find their symptoms to be severe and disabling. Besides, because IBS is so often misunderstood, many people experience social stigma. This can lead to further suffering. Get educated and stop stigmatizing people who have IBS.

Everyday Gyaan
Mums' Days

26 thoughts on “Common Myths About Irritable Bowel Syndrome

  1. Another thing about your final bullet point, IBS with a tendency towards chronic diarrhea can be fatal if the person cannot stay hydrated. Diarrhea is a major cause of death around the world (especially in children in developing countries, but it can happen to anyone).

    One of my best friends, as well as myself, have IBS. She has trigger foods, I don’t. But either way, we both spend significantly more time sick in the restroom than we would like to. It can be a real problem and has caused us both to miss out on social engagements. I’ve actually had IBS my entire life, even though I was only diagnosed a few months ago (I was diagnosed after explaining my lifelong digestive issues). The stigma is real and painful to deal with.


  2. I’ve suffered from IBS for 25 years now, my first bout was brought on by a stressful situation and now it’s controlled by food. It can spoil my life but I try not to let it. I also have Diverticulitis and a whole host of food allergies. Isn’t the human body such a joy.


  3. It seems like it is always the same about ‘unseen’ illnesses so much bad and incorrect thinking. Great to read this, thanks for sharing


  4. I was diagnosed with IBS but not until after they’d ruled out cancer and many other horrendous things. It can have awful symptoms. My friend has been hospitalised with it on 2 occasions. x


  5. IBS might not be a ‘serious’ thing but I’m sure it can be quite embarrassing for you. A lot of people make out that smaller problems can’t be a burden but they can be for individuals.


  6. Thankyou for such a fantastic, informative post… my Ibs is very much stress and anxiety related although gluten plays a role!!


  7. My friend has IBS and has to hear these myths regularly. Luckily he taught us all about it and we completely understand if he needs to be excused or if he can’t do something that day – other friends don’t seem to understand so much 😦


  8. A very informative post. The confusion between IBD and IBS are very common… But mostly everyone is different, food exclusions might help and then after a time you’re fine with it and something else is the irritant that sets it all off.


  9. I’ve never been diagnosed with IBS but feel like I have it and have for a few years now. The pain I get is horrible. I actually went to A&E one day because I was in so much pain and didn’t understand why when the result came back that I’m just constipated it was a little embarrassing.


  10. My partner has IBS and it took a good year to get a proper diagnosis and he lost weight because of it and was in terrible pain all the time, it’s still affects him but at least they know what it is and things can be done to improve his condition – great post for sharing awareness

    Laura x


  11. Nice writeup… I actually experience some discomforts that are similar, if I sit and eat and don’t exercise… I think I might have mild IBS problem, but if I exercise properly, eat less, am normal… looks like my constitution wants to be a active creature(: … well no social stigma’s here, if there is a problem there is, be it for waste or any other disease… let there be no further stress on the matter(:


  12. What a great informative post – I have heard of IBS but don’t really know anything about it. Thank goodness I do not suffer. Kaz x


  13. This is totally fascinating Astrid. I’ve learnt a lot about IBS that I really didn’t know before, so thank you xx Thanks for linking up to #TheList xx


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.