Treating Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Abdominal Pain

Abdominal Pain Is Frequently Characterized As "Extreme"

Woman with heating pad
Pain from IBS can, at times, be very severe. In some cases, home care measures can be very effective, but in others, a medication may help. Image © Westend61 / Getty Images

Abdominal pain is a common symptom of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). According to a 2007 survey of 1,966 people with IBS by the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, 80% of people with IBS report that pain is what makes their condition severe. Pain is a serious quality of life issue, causing many patients with IBS to miss work, school, and social events. How can people with IBS better manage their abdominal pain?

Why IBS Pain Happens

The abdominal pain experienced by people with IBS could be the result of intestinal contractions. The muscles in the colon contract (which is called peristalsis) to move stool along and out of the body. For people who have IBS, these muscles may be contracting irregularly and intermittently along the length of the colon. This may cause some of the hallmark symptoms of IBS, including abdominal pain, bloating, and gas. Pain typically occurs most commonly after a meal and may last for several hours.

Finding the Source of IBS Pain

Keeping a food diary can help in figuring out if certain foods are contributing to the symptom of abdominal pain. Recording everything eaten and including such details as where, when, and with who meals are eaten can help find any potential "triggers" for abdominal pain. Bringing the food diary to office visits with a physician or nutritionist for their analysis and advice can also be helpful in sorting out what is happening.

Treating IBS Pain

There are several ways to cope with abdominal pain. Hopefully, it can be prevented in the first place by identifying those triggers and avoiding them. That's not always possible, however, so there are other ways to cope with pain from IBS.

Home Remedies for IBS Pain

Peppermint oil. A natural antispasmodic, peppermint can also help reduce spasms in the colon.

Peppermint oil can be taken in either capsules or tea. While the capsules are more effective, and have even been approved for use with people with IBS in Germany, they can cause anal irritation. Additionally, peppermint also relaxes the muscles in the esophagus and can contribute to heartburn caused by acid reflux. Talk to your doctor before taking any peppermint oil supplements.

Heating pad. A simple and inexpensive way of treating abdominal pain is with a home heating pad. Heat can help soothe cramping muscles and provide a source of comfort. Some tips to remember are:

  • Never use a sports cream product (such as Icy Hot or Ben-Gay) with a heating pad as it can cause severe burns.
  • Don't fall asleep with the heating pad still on.
  • Never use a heating pad on bare skin.

Medications

Antispasmodics. Antispasmodics (such as dicyclomine [Bentyl], hyoscyamine [Levsin], and belladonna/phenobarbital [Donnatal]) are a class of drugs that are often prescribed to treat IBS symptoms. These drugs can relax the muscles of the stomach and intestines, which could provide some relief from abdominal pain.

To be effective, antispasmodics are typically taken 30 to 60 minutes before a meal. However, they can also cause side effects such as blurred vision, constipation, decreased sweating, dizziness, headache, nausea, and urinary problems.

Antidepressants. Tricyclic antidepressants (such as amitriptyline [Elavil], nortriptyline [Aventyl], imipramine [Tofranil]) are prescribed to people with IBS in order to treat abdominal pain. However, these agents are typically prescribed in much lower doses than they would be for treating depression. Antidepressants seem to be more helpful when taken at night for people with diarrhea predominant IBS (D-IBS). It may take several weeks of treatment with an antidepressant before it has an effect on abdominal pain.

The Bottom Line

Pain is a significant problem for people with IBS. If pain is preventing you from going to work or school or doing the things you love, talk to your doctor about getting it treated. There are several options available for relieving pain from IBS. Everyone with IBS deserves relief from pain. It may take some time to figure out how to treat the pain (or prevent it in the first place), but it's worth the effort to get back to living your life.

Source:

International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD). "IBS Patients: Their Illness Experience and Unmet Needs." IFFGD.org 24 Feb 2012. 20 Jan 2016.

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