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Irritable bowel syndrome, also known as IBS, is a complex gastrointestinal disorder that affects about 20% of the population at some time during life, and about 2% of the population in any given year.

A Psychological Therapy for a Complex Health Issue

In the United States and in Europe, it is more common among women than among men. In Asia and Africa, it is more common among men than among women. Even though only about 10% of people who have IBS seek medical care, about 50% of all referrals to gastroenterologists involve this condition.
Ithumb_cognitive_behavioral_therapy_.jpgBS is a puzzling condition that causes alternating diarrhea and constipation, painful bowel movements, and passing of undigested of food particles with stool. It also can cause bloating (sometimes called "balloon belly"), a feeling of incomplete bowel movement after defecation, looser stools when pain starts, harder stools when pain stops, and uncontrollable flatulence.

The symptoms of IBS usually stay below the waist, but some people with the condition develop uncomfortable "lumps in the throat" that seem to be triggered by social interaction, migraine headaches, acid reflux, and chest pain.

Doctors used to classify IBS as a psychosomatic illness because it usually first appearance after a traumatic life event. This might be a break-up or a divorce, the death of a child, a parent, or a spouse, getting sentenced to jail, or severe financial problems. Some people develop IBS after they develop another gastrointestinal condition or after they have abdominal surgery. Later, flare-ups of IBS may occur when the IBS suffer experiences the same smells, same tastes, or same sounds remembered from earlier bout of symptoms.

IBS is not really a psychosomatic illness. Most people who develop IBS have normal psychological profiles before they develop the disease. They may withdraw from social activities once diarrhea and flatulence become a frequent problem, however, and certain actions and attitudes make recovery difficult:

  • IBS sufferers who conceal anger and aggressive tendencies don't usually respond well to medication for the disease.
  • IBS sufferers who deny the severity of life events (such as deaths in the family, divorce, incarceration, or financial setbacks) tend to have symptoms that are much more severe.
  • IBS sufferers who show signs of dysthymia (chronic irritability, difficulty enjoying life, difficulty sleeping) are extremely likely to have symptoms over and over again.

People who have IBS tend also to have other conditions associated with vague symptoms and psychological distress, such as:

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)
  • Dysmenorrhea
  • Fibromylagia syndrome (FMS)
  • Irritable bladder syndrome
  • Migraine headaches
  • Multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome (MCSS)
  • Myofascial pain syndrome (MPS)
  • Periodic limb movement (PLMS)
  • Restless leg syndrome (RLS)
  • Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ)
  • Tension headaches

IBS is not life-threatening, but it can make life miserable for people who have it. Doctors used to believe that psychological issues caused IBS. Now the belief is that IBS causes psychological issues. Treating the psychological issues, however, is the basis of a new, experimental treatment for the disease.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Ljótsson B, Hedman E, Andersson E, Hesser H, Lindfors P, Hursti T, Rydh S, Rück C, Lindefors N, Andersson G. Internet-Delivered Exposure-Based Treatment vs. Stress Management for Irritable Bowel Syndrome: A Randomized Trial. Am J Gastroenterol. 2011 May 3. [Epub ahead of print]
  • Photo courtesy of ambernectar on Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/ambernectar/4381453385/