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Summary

Background

The natural history of the irritable bowel syndrome is poorly understood.

Aim

To assess the clinical course of the irritable bowel syndrome and the factors that might predict it.

Methods

An observational prospective study, involving 400 irritable bowel syndrome patients meeting Rome II criteria. Symptoms were recorded in a diary over four non-consecutive months (1, 4, 7 and 10). Demographic data, associated disorders, psychological status and health-related quality of life were obtained.

Results

At 1-year follow-up, half of the patients and half of their physicians considered irritable bowel syndrome to have improved, but improvement was minor. Diary data showed that, according to the type of symptom, improvement was small and quite different: diarrhoea in 19% of patients, abdominal pain frequency in 26%, constipation in 33% and abdominal pain intensity in 60%. Factors related to improvement at one year were: severe symptoms and poor health-related quality of life at first visit, irritable bowel syndrome-constipation, good improvement at 3 months, anxiety/depression, stress, symptoms related to meals and absence of comorbidity. By multivariate logistic regression, predictors were: severe basal symptoms and good improvement at 3 months (OR:CI 95%, 1.32:1.09–1.59 and 4.44:2.81–7.05).

Conclusions

At 1-year follow-up, half the patients and their physicians considered the irritable bowel syndrome to have had some improvement but, symptom diaries demonstrated that improvement was small and heterogeneous. Severe basal symptoms and improvement at 3 months were related to better prognosis.