Psychotherapy Has Surprising Impact for Those With IBS


A surprising new take on treatment for IBS might help sufferers. (Photo: Getty Images)

Although irritable bowel syndrome impacts up to 11 percent of the population, there is no cure for it. But new research may have found a surprisingly effective treatment.

A new meta-analysis of 41 clinical trials published in the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology found that IBS sufferers who received psychotherapy had a greater lasting reduction in symptoms over sufferers who had no treatment.

The studies that were analyzed asked participants to answer questionnaires about their symptoms at the beginning and end of treatment. While 75 percent of the psychotherapy group felt better than the average member of the group that received no treatment, researchers discovered that the effects lasted for 12 months after they underwent psychotherapy.

IBS typically causes recurring abdominal pain, constipation, or diarrhea, and affects 35 million Americans, according to the American Gastroenterological Association’s IBS in America survey. Symptoms can be so bad that some sufferers say they’d be willing to give up sex for a month just to have a month’s relief from the pain.

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“It’s exciting that this benefit appears to last, as IBS is notoriously difficult to treat,” lead study author Kelsey T. Laird, a doctoral candidate at Vanderbilt University, tells Yahoo Health.

Laird explains the psychotherapy link: The gastrointestinal tract is connected to the nervous system, and IBS is thought to result from a dysfunction of the brain-gut axis. In a nutshell, the mind can impact the body, and vice versa.

Psychotherapy seems to be particularly effective because it works to help the patient retain and practice new skills to use for the rest of their life (as opposed to medication, which only works as long as you take it). While Laird only studied patients for a year, she says it’s possible the effects would last longer than that.

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Based on her findings, Laird says she “definitely” recommends that IBS sufferers consider undergoing psychotherapy, especially since doing nothing can create a vicious cycle where symptoms cause increase anxiety and depression, making the problem worse.

However, she stresses that this doesn’t mean that the symptoms aren’t real: “Just because a patient might benefit from psychotherapy doesn’t mean that it’s all in their head.”

William Katkov, MD, a gastroenterologist at California’s Providence Saint John’s Health Center agrees. “No patient should be left with the feeling that their IBS symptoms are all in their head,” he tells Yahoo Health.

Katkov says there are psychological underpinnings with IBS, some of which are understood and others that aren’t, but says the findings support the concept that IBS is multi-factorial.

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While there’s no cure for IBS, Katkov says sufferers have options other than psychotherapy, including medication to treat severe diarrhea, constipation, and intestinal spasms, as well as dietary changes.

However, Katkov agrees that psychotherapy can be a beneficial treatment to try: “Most, if not all, people who suffer with IBS will report and acknowledge an emotional component.”

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