Distinguishing Between Trapped Gas Pain and Other IBS Pain Sources

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Is it trapped intestinal gas or are there other sources causing your abdominal pain when you have irritable bowel syndrome?

Some foods contain elements that are acted on by gut bacteria with the result of intestinal gas. Because of a problem in IBS called visceral hypersensitivity (enhanced pain sensation), this gas can become quite painful. However, trapped gas is not the only thing that can cause the abdominal pain associated with IBS.

Other Causes of IBS Pain

The causes of abdominal pain in IBS are quite complicated and poorly understood. The close neural connections between your brain and your gut can result in visceral hypersensitivity even in the absence of intestinal gas. This phenomenon is particularly likely if you have been experiencing a lot of stress.

Another key factor in IBS is the motility dysfunction that results in the symptoms of diarrhea and constipation. This same motor problem can also result in painful cramping or spasms of the muscles within the large intestine.

To make things even more confusing, pain within our bodies is known to radiate away from the original site.

Gas-Related Pain

Your symptoms are more likely to be gas-related if any of the following factors are present:

  • You have recently eaten gassy foods.
  • Your pain location keeps changing. Pain may be experienced in the upper abdomen and chest or rib cage.

IBS-Related Pain

Your pain is less likely to be gas-related and more likely to be the result of IBS problems of visceral hypersensitivity and motility if you experience any of the following:

  • Pain is more widespread and feels like large parts of your colon are hurting. Pain may radiate upward.
  • Pain is crampy or your colon feels like it is in spasms.
  • You feel anxious or are under stress.

How to Address the Pain Problem

After you have identified what might be causing your pain symptoms, tailor your management strategies accordingly.

  • Toilet Habits: You don't need to sit on the toilet for an extended period to ensure you've completely emptied to avoid "trapping in" any gas. This kind of thinking can enhance anxiety and sensations of incomplete evacuation, not to mention increasing a risk of hemorrhoids from excessive straining. 
  • Gas-Related Pain: If you determine that your problems are probably gas-related, look into strategies that target that symptom. Gas-related problems are more likely to be food-related, and if your symptoms are severe, you might benefit from a low FODMAPs diet. If your symptoms are less severe, you may benefit from the use of over-the-counter gas relievers. 
  • Visceral Hypersensitivity: If you think that your abdominal pain is more likely the result of the visceral hypersensitivity and motility problems inherent in IBS, relax. This is where the various mind/body approaches, such as relaxation exercises, yoga, and meditation might be of most help.
  • Muscle Spasms and Cramps: If your pain appears to be more muscle-related, e.g. cramps and spasms, you may benefit from antispasmodic medications or peppermint tea or capsules.

    A Word From Verywell

    You need coping strategies for the abdominal pain typical of IBS, no matter what the source problem. Explore more strategies on how to soothe your abdominal pain. While you may be using self-care, you should also discuss this pain with your doctor and know when severe stomach pain should be treated in the ER.

    Sources:

    Camilleri M, Boeckxstaens G. Dietary and pharmacological treatment of abdominal pain in IBS. Gut. 2017;66(5):966-974. doi:10.1136/gutjnl-2016-313425.

    Fashner J, Gitu AC. Common gastrointestinal symptoms: irritable bowel syndrome. Family Practice Essentials. 2013 Oct;413: 16-23.

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