Irritable bowel syndrome is a functional gastrointestinal disorder with symptoms including abdominal pain associated with a change in stool form or frequency. The condition affects between 5% and 10% of otherwise healthy individuals at any one point in time and, in most people, runs a relapsing and remitting course. The best described risk factor is acute enteric infection, but irritable bowel syndrome is also more common in people with psychological comorbidity and in young adult women than in the rest of the general population. The pathophysiology of irritable bowel syndrome is incompletely understood, but it is well established that there is disordered communication between the gut and the brain, leading to motility disturbances, visceral hypersensitivity, and altered CNS processing. Other less reproducible mechanisms might include genetic associations, alterations in gastrointestinal microbiota, and disturbances in mucosal and immune function. In most people, diagnosis can be made on the basis of clinical history with limited and judicious use of investigations, unless alarm symptoms such as weight loss or rectal bleeding are present, or there is a family history of inflammatory bowel disease or coeliac disease. Once the diagnosis is made, an empathetic approach is key and can improve quality of life and symptoms, and reduce health-care expenditure. The mainstays of treatment include patient education about the condition, dietary changes, soluble fibre, and antispasmodic drugs. Other treatments tend to be reserved for people with severe symptoms and include central neuromodulators, intestinal secretagogues, drugs acting on opioid or 5-HT receptors, or minimally absorbed antibiotics (all of which are selected according to predominant bowel habit), as well as psychological therapies. Increased understanding of the pathophysiology of irritable bowel syndrome in the past 10 years has led to a healthy pipeline of novel drugs in development.
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