Feeling a bit bloated after a large meal or intense exercise is normal, but persistent abdominal discomfort and a change in your bathroom habits might be irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
This common condition is estimated to affect at least 1 in 5 people in the UK. Of those 1 in 5, at least two-thirds of them are women!
IBS can be a painful and disruptive condition if left untreated. Knowing the difference between common gastro symptoms and the symptoms of IBS is an important step in being diagnosed.
Annoyingly, there is no specific diagnostic test to tell you if you have IBS. If you went to your doctor to be diagnosed they would likely rule out other conditions first, such as inflammatory bowel disease or coeliac disease. Your doctor may use something called the Rome Criteria to diagnose IBS. They will ask if you have had stomach pain or discomfort at least once a week for three months and probably ask about other symptoms you have had. For this reason, you must know your symptoms and be able to discuss those with your doctor.
Everyone with IBS will likely share a few symptoms, but women may have a few different symptoms they need to keep an eye out for.
Let’s start with the most common IBS symptoms.
Common IBS Symptoms
There are a few common symptoms you are likely to experience if you have IBS. These symptoms affect both men and women and can fluctuate depending on the severity of your IBS.
The most common symptoms are usually gastrointestinal and likely include
- Abdominal pain
You may also experience non-GI symptoms such as
- Low energy
- Mood changes – possible low mood and anxiety
Symptoms of IBS in Women
Women with IBS may experience additional symptoms with their IBS. Like the more common symptoms these can fluctuate depending on what you have eaten, your hormones, if you’ve exercised, and even your levels of stress.
Here are some less common IBS symptoms you need to know about:
More painful periods and PMS
Not to be the bearer of bad news, but IBS can lead to more painful PMS. Like it wasn’t already bad enough!
With IBS, you may experience more painful period cramps and PMS symptoms, along with increased backache, fatigue, insomnia, and water retention during your time of the month,
Your menstrual cycle also affects your gut. The hormones released during your cycle can affect your bowels and cause changes to your digestive system. If you have IBS, symptoms you normally experience such as bloating can be worsened by your hormones.
Want to learn more about periods and IBS? Check out this post, with some tips on how to manage IBS during your period.
Pain during sex
IBS can cause you pain during sex and can even dampen your libido if you are worried about the possibility of a painful experience. Typically, this pain happens during deeper penetrative sex and is felt in the pelvis, not the vagina.
But, don’t let IBS get in the way of intimacy with your partner. There are ways to work around it. You could try different positions to see what works for you and avoid penetrative sex during particularly painful flare-ups.
If painful sex is a regular occurrence, speak to your GP about your concerns. It may be a sign of a different condition such as endometriosis or potentially an infection.
This means losing control over your bladder, which is not fun, especially when you are dealing with IBS. For some with IBS, urinary incontinence can take on a variety of forms. It could be frequent trips to the bathroom, an overwhelming urge to pee, or waking up frequently in the night to go. Sometimes, it can make it painful to pee.
As with painful sex, if you are having pain when peeing or other bladder issues, speak to your doctor to rule out other issues like a UTI.
Increased chance of headaches and migraines
Did you know women are more prone to getting migraines compared to men?!
And if you’re a woman with IBS, you’re even more likely to experience headaches and migraines. The reason why this happens is still a bit of a mystery, but stress, hormones, and genetics are some of the suspected causes.
You can fight migraines and headache attacks by managing your IBS. Try implementing some self-care techniques like stress management, avoiding IBS-triggering foods, getting enough sleep, and staying well hydrated.
IBS or Something Else
The above symptoms may be a sign of IBS, but they could also be a sign of something else. If you haven’t yet done it, now is a good time to book an appointment with your GP to confirm you have IBS. Even if you are 99% sure you have IBS, it is best to get checked out so you can rule out other causes of your pain.
If you have severe symptoms such as
- blood in your stool
- sudden weight loss
- a hard lump in your stomach
Book an urgent appointment to rule out anything serious.
Currently, there is no proven cure for IBS. That doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to manage your IBS and live a full and happy life! There are lots you can do to manage your IBS, such as diet and lifestyle changes, ruling out allergies, and practicing stress relief techniques.