Picture shows woman in discomfort sitting on the floor.

IBS diagnoses hit ten-year high with women disproportionately affected

Diagnoses for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), a gut health phenomenon that affects 13 million people in the UK, have hit a ten-year high, new data confirms.

Moreover, data obtained through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to NHS Digital showed that women are still three times more likely to be diagnosed with IBS than man, highlighting how disproportionality the condition impacts them.

Note: Data acquired for 2023 is provisional

Results also showed that IBS diagnoses across all groups have more than tripled in the last ten years in England and Wales.

In 2014, women accounted for 67,005 diagnoses which increased to 201,886 in 2023.

Equally, while statistics for men have remained considerably lower than the diagnoses for women, they too rose from 18,242 in 2014 to 59,197 in 2023.

Human resources advisor Emma Hart, 30, has lived most of her life with gastrointestinal problems and IBS for most of her life, having been diagnosed at the age of eight.

She also suffers from endometriosis which she says has seriously impacted her quality of life, alongside the gastrointestinal issues.

Hart said: “I have had stomach issues for as long as I can remember.

“Unlike a lot of my friends and family, I have to be careful with what I eat and avoid foods that cause bloating, pain and diarrhoea, which can make eating out fairly challenging.

“Everything I’ve learnt about IBS, I have researched myself with very little support from my GP or any health care professional. I am also very lucky that one of my best friends is a dietician.”

She stressed the difficulty in preparing what you eat in advance as well as knowing where the nearest bathroom was, and carrying emergency medication for any possible situation.

She concluded: “It’s inconvenient, uncomfortable and can be anxiety-inducing at times.”

According to the data, age also plays a crucial role in IBS diagnoses.

The NHS dataset found that the most commonly affected age group for women suffering from IBS were women aged between 30-39 years old, yet the causes for this are still unknown.

Across both sexes, people from 50 to 70 were the most affected, but women from ages 20 all the way up to 90 saw significant numbers in the data.

Dr Gareth Corbett, 45, consultant gastroenterologist at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge also stressed that the condition can impact people anywhere from adolescence to 80-90 years old.

Dr Corbett also acknowledged the debilitating effects of IBS on a person’s quality of life.

He added: “There is definitely something hormonal at play and women can experience an endometriosis cross-over where they experience lower pelvic pain, and this is often branded as IBS, but in many cases is a gynaecological problem.”

Dr Corbett found that some women who initially presented with symptoms and then later fell pregnant, found that their symptoms cleared up and then returned to the IBS state once they stopped breast-feeding.

He also suggested that it was common for women who were menopausal to experience IBS with symptoms settling four to five years after.  

His observations supported findings in the data which showed that the second most frequent group of women to suffer from IBS symptoms were women aged between 50-59.

However, Alison Reid, CEO of the charity The IBS Network, was dubious of the findings suspecting that far more men are living with IBS than we know but that men are less likely to present to the doctor than women are.

This was supported by Dr Corbett who said there was a noticeable gender divide in patients visiting him and based this on a hesitance from men to seek help as readily as women.

However, IBS Networks CEO Reid expressed that more and more men were seeking IBS advice now which contrasts with when the charity began a decade ago at which point 98% of patients seeking advice were women.

The causes of IBS are still widely unknown but Dr Corbett posits that it is most certainly caused by a complex interaction between the gut microbiome, the way that the nervous system impacts the gut, and other factors associated with food breakdown and absorption.

While it is clear that women appear to suffer more, or at least report their symptoms more frequently, older men suffered more than younger men.

People are also turning to Doctor Google more than ever, with IBS taking the lead as the most searched gastroenterological condition in the last 10 years.

This corresponded with a spike in searches on gut health in the past five years.

IBS can also pose huge economic challenges, particularly for employers, who fall short of making the workplace more IBS-friendly resulting in many employees not working as productively as they could.

Reid said: “I’ve had people in tears because their GP thinks they’re a nuisance and they’re frightened to go back to them, so listening is a really powerful tool in reassuring them that they can influence what’s going on in their body.”

Reid said some people had even faced disciplinaries because they simply couldn’t face a conversation with an employer about gut issues without feeling shame or judgment.

Ultimately, our unawareness of the causes of IBS boils down to a lack of funding.

While life-changing, IBS is not life-threatening and this is where many sufferers are frustrated with not being able to pin down why they experience symptoms.

Dr Corbett believes that perceptions of IBS within the medical profession need to drastically change.

He explained that in an age where the NHS can barely cope with the demands of cancer, it was in no position to be handling complex disorders like IBS. 

He added: “For functional disorders like IBS or Fibromyalgia, the money just hasn’t gone in at the same volume, so therefore our understanding is still sitting where we were in the 1930s with cancer for IBS, and I think that’s something we have to accept.”

What Reid wants is a seamless care pathway for people who suffer from IBS throughout the entire stage of their diagnosis.

For Dr Corbett, the government must either re-evaluate the distribution of costs or explain to the public that they must pay for private consultations if they wish to receive a 35-40-minute consultation for non-life-threatening conditions.

Until a fundamental understanding of IBS improves, a wild west of people desperately seeking support for their symptoms will persist in the health sector.

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