IBS Pain...It's Not All In Your Head!

IBS pain can be unbearable or, at the very least, worrisome. If you've ever experienced that kind of abdominal pain that sends you to bed, as was so often the case for me, you know what I am talking about. Sometimes the pain can even wake you up in the middle of the night. Sometimes you may have pain, and be able to relieve it with a bowel movement, only to have it return again after eating a few small bites of food. There can even be IBS pain in other areas that may not even seem to be related, such as headaches, leg pain, and pain from hemorrhoids. In these desperate situations, I would reach for pain medication or the IBS medication called Bentyl that the gastroenterlogist had given me.

I do not like the side effects of this medication (dizziness, headache, sleepiness), but at least it would relieve the pain, even if just for a few hours. I could then function as a somewhat normal human being.

Pain relief does not have to include medication, although that is one option.

Our Sensitive Side

So much more research is needed on IBS, but one thing that scientists are finding is that those of us with IBS have much more sensitivity to pain than others. My husband had recognized this about me before I did. He jokes with me about my “mysterious aches and pains” that doctors can never adequately explain to me because there is no biological cause (which I guess is a good thing).

Researchers are finding that those of us with IBS and the misery of IBS pain, have more sensitive pain receptors in their GI tract, but I believe we have more sensitive pain receptors all over our bodies. In fact, this is one of the reasons that antidepressants are sometimes being prescribed for IBS. It is not necessarily because the patient has depression, but rather because they may have diminished receptors for the feel good hormone serotonin. The antidepressant works to improve this receptor activity. In other words, the body is more accepting of this important neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood, pain and general sensitivities. One psychologist I talked to described the feeling that many experience while taking an antidepressant: their nerves are less raw. Think of an open wound and how painful it is to touch. Then think of that wound as covered with a bandage, and how now touching it is not nearly as painful and irritating. That seems to be what is happening with the nerves in the digestive system for those taking antidepressants for IBS.

There is also a term called “visceral hypersensitivity” that is being used to describe what some sufferers of IBS pain experience. Visceral, as referred to in the medical community, means the internal organs. And, of course, hypersensitivity means being extra sensitive to, in the case of IBS, pain. Some research that has been done on IBS, shows the part of the brain that is stimulated during IBS pain is very different from those without IBS. Pain in IBS patients stimulates the part of the brain that causes anxiety. For those without IBS, pain stimulates an area of the brain that helps to modulate, or properly adjust, to the pain.

Inflammation is another factor in the pain of IBS. Research is finding that, for some, inflammation may be contributing significantly to their symptoms. These individuals may have very low levels of constant inflammation, possibly triggered by a virus or bacteria. This inflammation cannot be detected by examination or a biopsy, so as with the other possible causes of pain, it is not simple. This low level inflammation seems to mainly be the case for those with IBS with diarrhea, but more research is being done in this area.

I believe those of us with IBS are just sensitive individuals in general, which is not a bad thing! As sensitive beings, we are curious, we “think it through” before we act, and we are intuitive and compassionate. What would the world be like without us?

For a refreshing take on being a Highly Sensitive Person, check out this interesting article called The Benefits of Being Highly Sensitive, For Ourselves and Our World.

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