Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common, chronic condition of the digestive system, with symptoms including bloating, cramps, diarrhoea and constipation. It can be difficult to cope with, as the pain and other symptoms may affect your quality of life in various different ways. However, IBS is not life threatening and does not increase your risk of developing other bowel problems.
For anyone suffering with bowel-related symptoms, it's important to seek medical advice in order to rule out more serious conditions such as bowel cancer. It can be difficult to tell immediately what the problem may be, as most bowel conditions have very similar symptoms, therefore it is often necessary to undergo blood tests or other procedures to make sure it is IBS.
April is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, and therefore a good time to discuss the differences between IBS and bowel cancer in particular.
Living with the symptoms of IBS can be an unpleasant experience, from experiencing light bleeding when passing stools, to abdominal pain, gas and bloating. These symptoms often go away after a bowel movement, but can flare up without warning at any time, particularly at times of stress.
The most common symptoms of IBS include pain in the abdomen area and a change in bowel habits. Alongside this you may also experience a feeling that your bowels have not emptied properly after going to the toilet. Other symptoms include lower back pain, headaches, muscle pain and fatigue.
The symptoms of bowel cancer are similar to those of IBS, but may also include unexplained weight loss and a swelling or lump in your stomach or rectum, which is not the case with IBS. Bleeding from the rectum is one of the clearest indicators of possible cancer, particularly if there are no accompanying symptoms of haemorrhoids. Unfortunately, many people don't consider having a bowel cancer screening until they have been experiencing symptoms for some time. By that point the cancer may have penetrated through the bowel wall, spreading into the lymph nodes. Therefore it's essential to seek medical advice even if you think it may be nothing. Those aged over 50 are at greater risk of developing bowel cancer, so bear this in mind if you are in that age group.
A doctor will determine if there's a chance of bowel cancer by pressing lightly onto the belly area to check for lumps in the abdomen. They will also do a rectal exam, along with a fecal occult blood test (FOBT) that can detect small amounts of blood within the stools, suggestive of colon cancer.
A colonoscopy may also be performed to look at the whole colon and determine the cause of blood in the stools. There are various stages of bowel cancer and the earlier it can be detected, the higher the chances of recovery.