For as long as I can remember I’ve had issues with my digestive system and stomach pains. I used to go back and forth between sharp pains and dull aches with weird cramps every now and then.
When I was younger my diet wasn’t awful but I was a fussy kid so I probably wasn’t getting as much ‘good stuff’ as I needed. I thought maybe that was why I had pains and bathroom issues, my diet was to blame. I wasn’t overweight, I was pretty active, in fact there were times people were concerned about my health because I was underweight.
I’m certainly not as fussy as I was when I was growing up, I’m willing to give most things a try at least and I eat a lot more veg (even when I’m not a huge fan – I’m looking at you mushrooms) but regardless of what I’ve eaten throughout my life the pain and the struggles have never gone away.
Around seven years ago I had a breakdown and finally went to the doctors for help (I’d struggled with my mental health on and off for years and not sought help), and ended up on Citalopram (an antidepressant). One of the common side affects of this is an increase or decrease to your appetite which leads to an increase or decrease to your weight. Unfortunately for me, it was a huge increase. I felt hungry all the time, I never felt full. I wouldn’t notice how much I was eating so I’d eat and eat until I was physically sick.
I spoke to the doctor about this and they confirmed sometimes people taking these tablets don’t get that signal anymore telling them they are full, and to just be more careful about what I ate. Obviously this is easier said than done when you are home alone for months on end severely depressed and though I wasn’t eating so much I was sick anymore, I was still eating a lot more than I had previously. Since starting Citalopram my weight has increased pretty steadily year after year.
Now, back to the stomach pains, they were also increasing. The pain was unbearable, it could last for days, sometimes weeks, and it would wipe me out. I’d also started having more trouble using the bathroom, I’d gone from maybe going a few times a week (that’s the most regular I’ve ever been) to having to run to the toilet with intense pains immediately after an evening meal, or a couple times a day. One night I was in my bathroom for two hours and I honestly thought something inside of me was going to burst I was in that much pain, I blacked out!
Something I will admit here, is that I will ignore pretty much anything out of fear of what it COULD be. I ignored mental and physical health issues for years. So, as bad as my pains and other symptoms had become, I probably lived with it for another two years before making a doctors appointment. I do not recommend you follow my example! If you are struggling, please get help. It could be something small, or something serious, but they can’t tell you and give you the correct help if it isn’t checked out.
I went to the doctors, explained everything that had been going on and for how long. He asked why I hadn’t come in earlier and I didn’t really have an answer. He said I almost definitely have Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) but he wanted to get me checked for Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) due to the severity of some of my symptoms. Apparently some unlucky people do suffer from both. I had to take a sample kit home which included a plastic sample jar and what resembled a tiny ice cream scoop (no joke) which, once the deed was done and everything sealed and labelled appropriately was returned to the doctors surgery for testing.
My results came back indicating it was very unlikely I had IBD and no further tests were recommended (the next step would have been an internal exam with a lovely camera at the hospital). The exact cause of IBS is unknown – it’s been linked to things like food passing through your gut too quickly or too slowly, oversensitive nerves in your gut, stress and a family history of IBS. I talked again with my doctor and he explained there are a few types of IBS. (I’ve pinched the following info from the heathline website).
IBS with constipation, or IBS-C, is one of the more common types. People suffering with this type of IBS will typically experience fewer bowel movements overall, and may sometimes strain to go when you do have them. IBS-C can also cause abdominal pain that accompanies gas and bloating.
IBS-D is also known as IBS with diarrhoea. This type of IBS causes the opposite issues with IBS-C. With IBS-D, more than a quarter of stools on your abnormal bowel movement days are loose, while less than a quarter are hard and lumpy. If you have IBS-D, you may also feel abdominal pain along with more frequent urges to go. Excessive gas is also common.
Some people have another type called IBS with mixed bowel habits, or IBS-M. IBS-M is also sometimes called IBS with alternating constipation and diarrhoea (IBS-A). If you have this form of IBS, your stools on abnormal bowel movement days will be both hard and watery. Both must occur at least 25 percent of the time each, in order to be classified as IBS-M or IBS-A.
Guess which one lucky old me has.. BINGO! It’s IBS-M, the best of both. The doctor continued to explain that it was harder to treat as with C they can prescribe something to ‘loosen’ everything up, and D they can prescribe something to ‘firm’ everything up. With IBS-M, it’s more difficult because it would trigger either the C or D side of the issue and potentially make it even worse.
He did prescribe some tablets – Mebeverine, that help alleviate symptoms for some people, you could either take them three times a day, everyday, twenty minutes before a meal or just on the days when you were having problems, but still the twenty minutes before meals. I honestly tried both for a few months but it seemed for me those tablets didn’t reduce or alleviate anything. I genuinely think anything that might help is worth a try so don’t let my experience put you off, I know people that use those same tablets that swear by them, with huge improvements in their quality of life.
One of the most important things you can do to help yourself is work out your triggers. For me it’s certain foods (e.g. tomato, onion, dairy, anything spicy!) which you can identify by keeping a food and symptoms diary, there’s even a bunch of apps out there that will help you log it all. The doctor recommended doing something like that, but also either cutting back on my diet, slowly adding stuff back in, and then permanently removing whatever it is that triggers the IBS, or when logging symptoms and bad days, looking for what I ate that day or the day before that seems to be causing the reactions and eliminating things that way.
A huge thing that I don’t think enough people talk about, and by far my worst and fastest acting trigger, is stress. Not run of the mill small everyday stressors, but, big, emotional stress. Say I had received some bad news, or was anxious about an interview or important meeting coming up (for me that’s a big stress – thanks anxiety) my stomach would be in turmoil. The job I have now, I was in agony from the night before my interview, and was in the toilets throwing up and having diarrhoea, managing to get out with just five minutes to go before it started. I obviously sorted myself out enough to give a pretty good performance and then immediately had to go and rest with some painkillers after.
Every time I have seen my doctor or discussed my IBS with anyone I have been told to lose weight. Whilst I understand that being overweight can exacerbate symptoms, it is not the cause of them. I have always had issues, and had them before I was bigger. I do want to be fitter and healthier for many reasons, improving my quality of life by maybe reducing flare up’s would be a big one, but I do just want people to realise, it’s not the be all end all. It won’t cure me, I won’t suddenly be a shining beacon of health and perfectly painless and regular bowel movements.
Another complication of this, is that when you are suffering from chronic pain and fatigue, which is most days for me, it’s really hard to do your normal day to day stuff, let alone go out and exercise. Some days I literally struggle to get dressed and walk downstairs, and have to ask my partner for help with even the smallest tasks, so how am I supposed to go for a run, or even a walk, or do a home workout? I do still try, and do what I can when I can, but it’s really really tough, and makes you feel like a failure even though you are basically fighting your own body.
Here’s where we get into the nitty gritty.
So, after spending the morning writing this, I had a bad night. Fair warning – it may get a bit graphic here. It started with sudden cramping and some pain with indicates to me that I need to leg it to the bathroom. I got full on body sweats, I was getting dizzy and then the sharp stabbing pains started, getting worse until I thought I was going to pass out (of course apart from that one time I never get the luxury of actually losing consciousness, the pains just continue and go back and forth with the other symptoms, staying at that awful level of intensity and I end up crying and begging for relief).
I had a bowel movement, which was a very painful but kind of ‘normal’ movement. Then I promptly threw up into the bucket I was holding (we’re perpetually sorting/decorating our bathroom so there was one handy) which I’m sure my other half will appreciate as they tell me off when I throw up into the bath. Now believe me I know that sounds gross but when I am sitting on the toilet I can lean over the bath as they are next to each other, and when I am in serious pain, panicking and disorientated and the diarrhoea is going off I think it’s better to dirty the bath and the toilet (much easier to clean) than the toilet and the floor. The ‘normal’ movement didn’t help alleviate anything and the sharp stabbing pains decided to really kick it up a notch, I was sweating and breathing so hard I couldn’t really focus on anything in front of me, and the diarrhoea started. It’s hot and painful and feels like it should relieve the bloating and cramps but it doesn’t.
Depending on the bout/flare up – whatever you want to call it, I can be in the bathroom going back and forth like this for ten minutes or two hours. You’d think I wouldn’t mind so much when it’s a shorter period of time but when the pain is so intense and it affects your whole body the way it does every second is torture. Sometimes I think I am done and I feel a little better so I clean up and go for a lay down only for it to start all over again two or three more times that day.
Back to this particular incident, I think I’m done (I hope I am) and as usual I’m a hot sweaty mess, I’m exhausted, my stomach is still very sore and bloated and my body aches. My foot is numb. I’m not sure why this happens but it’s very frustrating, depending on how much feeling I’ve lost combined with my fuzzy head sometimes I end up falling, I’ve even banged my head once or twice. So.. I crawl into bed, move my pillows and blanket around to get myself in the most comfortable and the least painful position I could and just lay there with my eyes closed. I had no energy to do anything else. It was just under an hour later I stupidly started thinking maybe I’d be ok for the rest of the evening, other than sore and tired I mean, when the cramps decided to grab my attention again and I had to dash to the loo for another round of diarrhoea.
This second trip to the bathroom was more of the same and I won’t go into further detail as I’m sure you get the picture by now. Needless to say, it was awful, it’s two days later and my stomach is still feeling tight and very sore. Painkillers and my hot water bottle have followed me everywhere, only paracetamol though which doesn’t do much but I suppose it’s better than nothing. I am going to try (again) to get some stronger painkillers from my doctor, but they are very reluctant to give them out and appointments in the post-covid world just don’t really happen.