Talking about bowel habits and poo is still seen as taboo and many patients are embarrassed to talk to their doctor about these types of symptoms which can lead to considerable delay in diagnosing serious bowel conditions such as bowel cancer or inflammatory bowel disease. Equally important are disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome and faecal incontinence, both of which can have considerable impact on the patient’s life. Recent research has revealed that while over half of people in the UK suffer with a chronic or persistent gut problem, almost 60% believe that talking about poo is unthinkable.
As a colorectal surgeon, I was interested to discover the Gut Week campaign which runs this year from 31st August to 6th September. Now in its 17th year, it is part of an ongoing campaign by Love Your Gut, supported by 5 leading digestive health charities: Bowel & Cancer Research, Bowel Disease Research Foundation, Core (the Digestive Diseases Foundation), the Primary Care Society for Gastroenterology and St Mark’s Hospital Foundation. It’s aim is to raise awareness of gut symptoms and disorders, emphasising the importance of maintaining good gut health and providing resources for further information.
Initiatives like this are so important in breaking down the stigma around bowel conditions. I have had many patients suffer in silence, only coming to see a health doctor when they really can no longer cope. There are many reasons for this, but I think it is primarily because they are embarrassed or feel that it is something that they just have to put up with. I commonly see patients with incontinence or rectal prolapse who have been suffering for years.
So, how do you discuss these things with your doctor? Firstly, it is important to remember that you are not alone. Over half the population will have a gut problem and your GP, surgeon or gastroenterologist will have seen many of these things before. We appreciate that discussing poo & bowel habits can be embarrassing but we will not be embarrassed so you should try not to be. Using everyday words is fine and the more honest you can be about your symptoms the better – it’s difficult to be too graphic with a colorectal surgeon!! If examination is required, the reasons behind this will be explained and it will not be done without your consent.
Embarrassment is temporary but ignoring symptoms may lead to a more advanced diagnosis if presentation is delayed. Dealing with things at an early stage is always easier.
Over the next number of weeks, I will post more about common digestive disorders, their symptoms, investigation and management along with links to online resources for further information.