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Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Health Center

Behavioral Therapy Can Help Ease Irritable Bowel Syndrome

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By Elizabeth Tracey , MS
WebMD Health News

May 9, 2000 -- People with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) who are given behavioral therapy along with standard medical treatment say they feel better than people who get medical treatment alone, a new study has found.

"The data provide evidence that the combination of medical treatment plus ... behavioral treatment is superior to medical treatment alone in therapy of IBS," writes researcher Ingeborg Heymann-Mönnikes, MD, of the department of medicine, Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany. Her study appears in the current issue of the American Journal of Gastroenterology.

IBS is a common disorder whose cause is unknown. People with IBS, also known as spastic colon, experience varying degrees of abdominal spasms and pain, constipation, and/or diarrhea. Stress, depression, poor diet, and drugs can worsen the symptoms.

There is no cure for IBS, but patients are often treated with spasm-relieving medicines, mild laxatives, and mild antidiarrheal agents, and some may also receive antidepressants, sedatives, or pain medications. High-fiber diets can also help.

Heymann-Mönnikes and colleagues recruited 24 patients with IBS from a clinic in Germany. The patients were screened to rule out psychological problems, and divided into two groups. About half received standard medical therapy, seeing a supportive physician and getting medications to treat their symptoms. The other group got behavioral therapy along with the medical therapy.

Patients in the second group attended 10 sessions lasting about an hour apiece, over a period of 10 weeks, Heymann-Mönnikes says. During the sessions, they were given information about IBS and an analysis of their own illness and symptoms, as well as training in progressive muscle relaxation, coping strategies, problem-solving, and assertiveness and social skills.

The people who received the behavioral therapy reported feeling more in control of their health and having an improved sense of well-being and quality of life, compared with those who received medical therapy alone.

"This is not a surprise to me," Charles Burnett, PhD, DrPH, tells WebMD. Burnett is director of psychological services for the Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

He adds that medical therapy alone can?t treat IBS because it is a disease that involves both the brain and the bowel. "Many gastroenterologists are becoming more psychologically minded about these disorders, but a bridge needs to be made for earlier referral for psychological therapy right at the beginning," Burnett says.

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