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Hypnotherapy effective for relief of irritable bowel syndrome?

Jennifer Bunn
in Complementary Therapies
Photo: iStockphoto

It seems that hypnotherapy can be an effective treatment for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Researchers in Sweden conducted studies involving almost 350 patients suffering from IBS and found that hypnotherapy was successful in alleviating symptoms in 40 per cent of IBS patients.

People with IBS who have severe symptoms have very few effective treatment options available to them. Many people live with their symptoms and do not seek help. Available medical treatments are often ineffectual for IBS. Hypnotherapy may offer lasting relief from symptoms, according to the Swedish researchers. In addition, the researchers found that hypnotherapy may be used in ordinary healthcare settings, rather than specialised hypnotherapy centres, which have been previously studied.

In one study conducted by the researchers, 138 patients underwent hypnotherapy over a 12 week period (once weekly for one hour). The results of the study showed that 40 per cent experienced fewer symptoms, while only 12 per cent of control group participants experienced an improvement in symptoms. The researchers concluded that hypnotherapy could be a cost- effective and helpful treatment for IBS.

What is IBS?

IBS is a functional disorder of the gastrointestinal tract; in other words, IBS does not cause changes at the cellular level within the bowels. It is characterised by diarrhea, constipation or alternating diarrhea and constipation.

What are the symptoms of IBS?

Along with the symptoms mentioned above (diarrhea, constipation or alternating diarrhea/constipation), symptoms may include:

  • bloating
  • cramping
  • abdominal pain
  • straining at stool
  • mucus in the stool
  • urgent need to have a bowel movement

Some people have mild, intermittent symptoms while others experience severe unremitting symptoms that may negatively impact their ability to function.

What causes IBS?

Researchers are not sure what causes IBS. It has been postulated that people with IBS have a hypersensitivity to certain foods or stress that precipitates their symptoms. Some people seem to develop IBS after a gastrointestinal infection (post-infectious IBS). Some people are thought to have a mild case of celiac disease (gluten intolerance), which may cause symptoms similar to IBS. Abnormal serotonin levels (a neurotransmitter) in the bowel has also been put forth as a possible cause of IBS.

Who is affected by IBS?

IBS is the most common diagnosed gastrointestinal disorder. One in five people are thought to be affected by IBS, which is usually diagnosed before age 35 in a large percentage of people (50 per cent). IBS affects more women than men.

How is IBS diagnosed?

IBS is diagnosed based on a set of strict criteria, although it may be diagnosed in some people when all other possible causes of a patient’s symptoms have been ruled out. There is no test that will definitively diagnose IBS, such as a blood test. However, blood tests may be ordered to rule out other conditions. A colonoscopy may also be done to rule out inflammatory bowel disease, cancer or other diseases.
Diagnostic criteria for IBS include:

  • abdominal pain/discomfort for at least 12 (non-consecutive) weeks out of the previous year
  • pain relieved by having a bowel movement
  • change in frequency of bowel movements
  • change in the appearance/consistency of stool
  • uncontrollable urgency
  • bloating
  • mucous in the stool

“Red flags” that negate a diagnosis of IBS include fever, weight loss, vomiting, severe pain that is unrelieved and blood in the stool (not caused by haemorrhoids).

What is the treatment for IBS?

Medical therapy is geared towards control of symptoms and may include:

  • antidiarrheals (for diarrhea)
  • fibre supplements or laxatives (for constipation)
  • antispasmodics (may relieve abdominal spasms but may also worsen constipation)
  • antidepressants (may worsen constipation)

Patients may need to restrict their diet to avoid foods that worsen symptoms. Some people obtain relief of symptoms by eating several small meals a day rather than eating larger meals spaced farther apart. Stress management is also important for people with IBS, as stress can exacerbate symptoms. As shown above, hypnotherapy may help to reduce symptoms. Cognitive behavioural therapy has also been shown to be moderately effective in relieving symptoms.

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