Is IBS painful? Indeed pain is the major symptom seen by individuals with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Three out of four individuals with IBS report constant or recurrent abdominal pain, with pain the principal factor that tends to make their IBS serious. Significantly, and unlike chronic pain in general, IBS pain is often associated with alterations in bowel movements (diarrhoea, constipation, or both). In this article we will talk more about IBS painful episodes and how hypnotherapy can reduce IBS pain.
The standard main definition for pain is that it is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience that is related to actual or perceived damage to the body. Pain that is short in duration is termed acute, whilst pain which lasts six months or longer is termed chronic. Chronic pain can be constant or recurring frequently for long periods of time.
The chronic pain in IBS can be experienced anywhere in the abdomen (tummy), though is frequently reported in the lower abdomen. It may become worse shortly after eating, and relieved or even, at times, worsened following a bowel movement. IBS pain is not always predictable and may change over time. People with IBS use different descriptions to explain how the pain feels. Some examples include cramping, stabbing, aching, sharp, or throbbing.
Is IBS Painful – Types of pain
People I see in London for IBS hypnotherapy often find that IBS is painful at different times of day and even those descriptions of the pain can change.
IBS is a long-term condition which can be challenging both for patients and healthcare providers. IBS affects 10–15% of adults. Fewer than half of those in fact go to see a healthcare provider for their symptoms. I frequently see people for IBS hypnotherapy, who do not have a formal diagnosis for IBS. The primary reason people with IBS see a clinician is for relief of abdominal pain. So, is IBS painful? For many it certainly is.
Understanding pain in IBS
Chronic abdominal pain in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is not associated with structural damage, like ulcers, but the pain is just as real. The sensation starts in the gut and then travels to the brain, which interprets the sensation as pain. The pain is not related to obvious damage in the body, like a broken bone.
Brain imaging shows that people with IBS feel more pain for a certain level of stress than other people. Those with IBS are hypersensitive; they have an increased response that makes a stimulus feel more painful. They may experience pain from sensations that other people don’t think are painful (called allodynia) or have more severe pain than others (called hyperalgesia).
How is the pain experienced?
In IBS, some signals in the gut are experienced in some brain regions as pain. After the brain receives pain signals, it can modify the signals to increase or reduce the feeling of pain.
The brain’s ability to modify sensations is called the gate control theory of pain. Signals that travel from the body to the brain pass through the spinal cord, which can serve as a kind of “gate”. The brain can open and close this gate, like a volume switch on a stereo. Opening the gate increases the signals that reach the brain and increases the feeling of pain. Closing the gate decreases signals and blocks pain.
This explains how a person can sprain an ankle while running a race and not feel pain until the race is over. Or, how during a bad day at work, a minor discomfort can feel really painful – all because the spinal cord acts as a gate to modify how much pain in the brain feels.
Managing the Pain
All treatment for IBS begins with education to understand the nature of the condition, including why and how symptoms arise. IBS is a brain-gut disorder. For people with IBS that is mild, the treatment is at the level of the gut. But, when more severe chronic pain is present, the treatment also needs to be at the level of the brain.
Treatment approaches for IBS
When pain is chronic it takes time for it to go away. Because pain is an emotional experience, taking steps to improve emotions can lead to reduction of the harmful effects of the pain even when it is still present.
Maintaining an active role in life, engaging in physical activity, and addressing emotional and social health are important to help promote a sense of well-being, which counters negative expectations.
The power of the mind can be harnessed to affect pain by sending signals or thoughts to close the pain gate. Techniques such as hypnosis, meditation, and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help ease symptoms and improve control over the disorder.
Hypnotherapy for IBS
I use hypnotherapy to treat IBS. This is a drug free way to calm down the communication between the brain and the gut. I see people in London and frequently people opt for my six week IBS hypnosis programme. This includes daily hypnotherapy for IBS recordings.
Pain is an emotional experience, so taking steps to improve emotions can reduce the harmful effects of the pain even when it is still present. Tackling emotional and social health is essential to promote a sense of well-being, which counters negative expectations.
Here are 10 things you can do to help reach treatment goals:
- Acceptance: Accept that the pain is there, and learn about the condition and its management
- Get involved: Take an active role in care by developing a partnership with healthcare providers
- Set priorities: Look beyond symptoms to establish what is important. Eliminate the rest
- Set realistic goals: Break larger goals into smaller, manageable steps. Celebrate when you reach goals, even small ones!
- Know your rights: You have the right to be treated with respect, to ask questions, voice your opinions, and to say no without guilt
- Recognize and accept emotions: Your mind and body are connected, and strong emotion affects pain. Acknowledge your emotions to reduce stress and manage pain.
- Relax: Exercises like hypnosis, meditation, yoga, or deep breathing can help reclaim control of the body and reduce pain.
- Exercise: Staying active can help increase your sense of control and divert attention from symptoms.
- Refocus: Focus on abilities instead of disabilities to help realize that you can live a normal life.
- Reach out: Share thoughts and feelings with healthcare providers, family, and friends. Seek support and healthy interaction.
Putting it all Together
Brain imaging shows that people with IBS feel more pain than other people
Sensations travel from the gut through the spinal column to the brain where they are felt as pain.
The brain can modify the sensation of pain, either increasing or decreasing it
Therapy and medications can help reduce or prevent the pain from IBS
Strong painkillers like opioids should not be used for pain in IBS; in fact, they might increase pain.
Neurogastroenterologists or primary care doctors who know how to work with chronic pain are the best to help treat IBS pain.