Stomach pains? Unpredictable bowel movements? You could have Irritable Bowel Syndrome. But what is IBS? And is IBS a disability in the UK, meaning you could be entitled to benefits if you suffer from it? Read on to learn more.

What is IBS?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common condition where your digestive system doesn’t behave itself. This results in bouts of painful stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea, and constipation. It usually develops in your twenties and can go through good periods and bad periods – usually triggered by stress or eating something your gut doesn’t like.

We’re good at chatting about all sorts of things in the UK, but pooing isn’t one of them. This can lead sufferers feeling isolated, as they’re too embarrassed to talk about their symptoms. It can also be very stressful not knowing when IBS is going to strike in case you’re not near a toilet.

What causes IBS?

Nobody knows what’s behind IBS, but it is closely linked with emotional factors such as stress, bereavement and other major life changes such as moving house or getting a job. While stress does not actually cause IBS, it can leave you prone to an attack if you already suffer from the condition. Some sufferers say that it can be set off by certain foods too.

How does IBS work?

In a fully-functioning body, your guts work like a factory processing plant. Food gets carried along, stopping at regular intervals to be broken down and digested. Eventually, there’s nothing left but waste product, and that gets dumped round the back when nobody’s looking.

IBS is an intestinal complaint that makes the whole operation go askew. The muscles that keep things moving are believed to go into spasm every now and then, which mucks up the digestion process from start to finish.

Is IBS a disability in the UK?

IBS isn’t automatically considered a disability in the UK, and whether your IBS qualifies as a disability mainly depends on how your symptoms affect your ability to work. An IBS diagnosis alone will not be enough to get a long term disability claim approved. Beyond a diagnosis, the good people at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) will want to know your personal symptoms, their severity and frequency, and the ways in which they impair your job performance.

If you are considered to have a disability because of your condition, you have the right to request a ‘reasonable adjustment,’ which means your employer must take reasonable steps to implement adjustments to your workplace or work arrangements to ensure you are not at a ‘substantial disadvantage’ compared to other employees. You might also find it useful to seek out the support of an Occupational Therapist who could provide you with examples of some adjustments that can be made to your role. 

Some people with IBS will also be able to claim Personal Independence Payments (PIP) if they’ve:

  • Had issues with daily living or getting around for three months.
  • Expect these difficulties to continue for at least nine months.

The Department for Work and Pensions will consider your eligibility for PIP, and you can receive these payments even if you’re working, have savings or are getting most other benefits.

What’s the cure for IBS?

IBS is not known to be caused by a physical problem in your body, so it’s hard to diagnose and there isn’t a ‘cure’ as such. But you can learn what triggers a flare up and this will help you control the condition.

Signs and symptoms of IBS

Symptoms vary from one person to the next, and also kick in over different periods of time:

  • You get abdominal pain or discomfort that goes away soon after you go to the toilet.
  • Your stomach feels bloated, often midway through a meal.
  • You may find yourself veering between constipation and diarrhoea.
  • Passing slime or mucus out of the bowel.
  • Erratic bowel movements, often with ‘rabbit pellets’ being passed.

How to cope with IBS

Always let your doctor make the diagnosis, as some symptoms are closely related to more serious bowel complaints. If it is IBS, here are some self-help tips:

  • Try to understand your IBS. Learn to spot your personal triggers – keep a diary of what you’re eating, how you’re feeling and what your IBS is up to. The IBS Support Network’s self-care programme could be helpful here.
  • Don’t bolt your food down. Take your time to chew everything slowly and properly before swallowing and try to eat calmly, rather than shoving a sandwich down your neck whilst running for a train.
  • Try taking probiotics (probiotic drinks are available in most supermarkets). They can help regulate your bowel. Try one brand for a month, and if it isn’t making much difference, try switching to another. Different brands work for different people.
  • It goes without saying, but eating junk food or processed food isn’t good for anyone’s gut – let alone the gut of an IBSer.

How do I manage needing to poo at really bad moments?

If you’re open and honest about your IBS and what it does, it will take the stress out of hiding it away. Remember, it’s not your fault. But if you’re still too embarrassed to say ‘hey guys, I’m just off to drop rabbit pellets down the loo for ten minutes‘, here are some tips:

If you live in a flat/house share – make sure you have a sturdy lock on the bathroom door and an air-freshener to hand. If you don’t want your housemates to know you’ve been pooing, it’s worth taking a shower straight after you’ve finished then opening the window. The steam should carry the smell away outside.

If you’re at work – think about using the disabled toilet. They’re usually a fully sealed room. You don’t have to worry about smells or sounds then, plus, it’s less likely somebody will want to use the loo at the same time.

If you’re out in public – The IBS network can give you a Can’t Wait card. This is a discrete red card you can carry with you to show staff in offices/cafes/shops so they’ll let you use their facilities or skip the queue. The card is widely recognised.

You can also get a RADAR special key online that unlocks disabled toilets around the UK. You can download a loo tracker app with it, which will use your phone’s GPS to locate your nearest disabled loo.

Next Steps

By Ally Thomas

Updated on 14-Sep-2022