This month is IBS Awareness Month!
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) can be an incredibly life-impacting condition, affecting around 10-20% of the population (80% of those individuals being female!). The exact cause of IBS is unknown, but it is thought to likely be multifactorial.
IBS is characterized by abdominal pain paired with constipation and/or diarrhea. When many people hear about IBS, they may not automatically think that working with a physical therapist could be useful; however, there is so much that physical therapists can do to help improve symptoms related to IBS. Here are a few!
1.) Assist the client in developing optimal bowel habits.
We’ve discussed in detail several times how our habits can be extremely connected to our bowel function. This is also very true for individuals dealing with IBS–whether struggling with constipation, diarrhea or both! Training bowel habits includes developing a consistent bowel routine, optimizing dietary habits, and even toilet positioning/defecation strategies. These factors basically aim to help make sure your habits are working for you instead of against you. Sometimes these components require a more multidisciplinary team. This can include working with your GI physician, pelvic PT, as well as a dietician, functional medicine provider, and other specialties.
2.) Global downtraining and stress management.
Did you know you have an extensive neural network throughout your GI system? This network has been termed “the second brain” due to its ability to function even when cut off from the rest of the system. It’s also often called “the emotional brain of the body,” which makes sense when we think about how often we feel our emotions in our gut (i.e. “butterflies in your stomach” or “my gut reaction”) All is this means that our GI function can often be influenced by our stress, emotional regulation, and general psychological well being.
Qin et al. (2014) stated, “More and more clinical and experimental evidence showed that IBS is a combination of irritable bowel and irritable brain.” They went on to add that psychological stress can impact intestinal mobility, motility, secretions and permeability. They concluded that, “IBS is a stress-sensitive disorder, therefore, the treatment of IBS should focus on managing stress and stress-induced responses.”
Pelvic PTs utilize strategies promoting downtraining and neuromuscular relaxation to help calm the nervous system and promote a more parasympathetic dominant state. This can be done through movement, relaxation strategies, mindfulness/meditation, and many other techniques. Want to get started on mindfulness now? Check out this prior post on Mindfulness, Meditation and Pain.
3.) Specific exercises aimed at promoting better movement.
This may not seem connected at first, but the reality is that when people aren’t feeling well or when someone is struggling with constipation/diarrhea, people tend to move less. This can often impact bowel function as regular exercise tends to stimulate more regular bowel movements. This 2019 review of 14 studies involving exercise interventions aimed at improving IBS symptoms found that exercise does seem to have a role in helping bowel function (Note: many of these studies were not so great, and found to have a high risk of bias, so more studies are definitely needed!)
Schuman et al. (2016) performed a review of 6 randomized-controlled trials looking at the role of yoga in helping people with IBS. I’ll be honest, I absolutely love yoga and find the pairing of breathing, mindfulness and movement to be so beneficial to myself and my patients. So, I was not surprised to see this review showing that the groups participating in yoga had decreased bowel symptoms, IBS severity and anxiety.
Additionally, it is common for someone with chronic constipation and/or diarrhea to have restrictions in the movement of their hips and spine. Restoring this movement through specific exercise can facilitate better function of the muscles around the pelvis, including those involved directly in bowel function.
4.) Treat the myofascial components of the problem.
We have discussed the viscerosomatic and somatovisceral reflexes in the past. Basically, when a person has an organ problem (in this case, IBS), we often will find that the myofascial tissues around the organ can become restricted and sensitive. This can be interconnected where myofascial dysfunction can worsen a visceral problem and a visceral problem worsens myofascial dysfunction. Thus, addressing both sides of the problem can often be very optimal. From a musculoskeletal standpoint, this means identifying structures around the abdomen and pelvis which may be sensitive or not moving as optimally. This can often include the abdominal wall, hip muscles, thigh muscles, buttocks muscles and the muscles around the low and mid back.
5.) Treat underlying or co-existing pelvic floor problems.
Prott et al. (2010) found that there were relationships between pelvic floor symptoms and anorectal function in individuals with IBS. Dysfunction of the muscles of the pelvic floor can present as weakness, which can lead to either difficulty holding back stool or poor support around the rectum. It can also include overactivity and poor relaxation of the pelvic floor muscles. This can contribute to pain, but also can influence how well the muscles can open for defecation , or hold back when they need to. Additionally, people can experience difficulties with coordination of the pelvic floor– basically, when the muscles do not contract or relax when they should. Dyssynergic defecation occurs when the pelvic floor muscles contract instead of relax when a person has a bowel movement. This can be a significant problem for those struggling with constipation. I wrote a whole article on that, and you can find it here. Sphinctor dyssynergia can occur in individuals with IBS as well as other types of constipation, and can be treated with pelvic PT (lots of treatment options, including SEMG biofeedback which has been found to be helpful for people with and without IBS).
IBS can be so impacting to a person’s life, and you don’t have to suffer alone! I encourage you to build your multidisciplinary team and start getting the help you need to get the most out of life!
What strategies have you found most helpful in dealing with IBS? As always, I’d love to hear from you!