Irritable Bowel Syndrome Linked to Emotional Abuse

IT HAS BEEN KNOWN for some time that irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, is largely psychological in nature. That is, while the severe abdominal pain, cramping, flatulence, and diarrhea (and/or constipation) are all too real, researchers have traced the symptoms not to a physical cause but to an emotional one-stress. Now investigators are beginning to try to pin down exactly what types of stress might be most likely to lead to the disorder, which afflicts nearly 35 million Americans, mostly women. What they are finding is that stress resulting from emotional abuse in adolescence or adulthood may play a role.

When University of Toronto scientists compared 25 young and middle-aged women with IBS to 25 women who had similar symptoms but from bowel disorders with a clear medical cause, they found that the IBS sufferers were more likely to have been verbally threatened, put down, or denied personal or economic independence. They were also more likely to blame themselves for negative life events and to hold in their feelings while keeping others' needs in front of their own.

Previous studies have linked physical and sexual abuse to IBS, so the scientists are not surprised by the findings. But lead investigator Alisha Ali, PhD, cautions that it's much too early to say abuse of any kind causes the problem. At this point, she says, all we have is an association between abuse and IBS. Additional studies are necessary.

In the meantime, anyone suffering from IBS might want to consider seeing a psychotherapist to reduce stress, whether from abuse or some other cause, IBS sufferers should also seek the help of a physician, who can at least prescribe a medication like Donnatal or Levsin to reduce spasms in the intestine that cause pain. Dietary strategies, such as reducing fatty foods, may also help mitigate flare-ups; fatty foods could stimulate intestinal contractions.

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