Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is one of those conditions that seems personal to each individual. Although IBS symptoms can be categorized under a general group, each person has a slightly different combination of complaints. Perhaps this is why, for many, standard treatments don’t seem to work.
If you or someone you know falls into this category, here’s an alternative treatment that’s proving to be safe and effective: hypnosis. In a recent study, researchers randomly assigned 138 patients to receive either 12 sessions of hypnosis or placebo. All the patients did not respond to standard therapy.
The researchers found that almost 40% of the participants responded favorably to the hypnosis treatments, in comparison to 11% in the control group. Those in the hypnosis group experienced a 25% drop in symptom scores. The placebo group, which did not see the same improvements in symptoms, were given advice about their diets, along with relaxation exercises to perform.
During a second study involving 48 patients, 25% of the participants responded favorably in terms of their IBS symptoms, while the control group saw a 13% improvement in symptoms.
The researchers say these two studies were different from previous clinical trials that tested hypnosis as a treatment for IBS. Rather than being treated at specialized clinics just for the purpose of the trial, participants received their hypnosis treatments from therapists right in their own communities. For one trial, participants received their hypnosis treatments from psychologists in private practice who were trained to perform hypnosis therapy. In the second trial, patients received their hypnosis treatments from a psychologist working at a gastroenterology outpatient clinic.
Were there any symptoms of IBS that particularly responded to hypnosis treatments? According to the researchers, hypnosis seemed to trigger significant drops in pain and bloating symptoms. Other common symptoms of IBS include constipation, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps. Standard treatment for IBS usually involves making dietary changes, taking antidiarrheal medication and/or laxatives for constipation.
Although hypnosis therapy for IBS has been proven effective in other trials, the treatment still remains difficult to find. Hypnotherapists trained to help with IBS symptoms are still a rarity.
The researchers think the success of the hypnosis treatments lies in the fact that the gut is connected to the brain. Whatever happens in one is likely to affect the other. If a patient starts to worry about his or her IBS symptoms, that anxiety can make these symptoms even worse. Hypnosis helps to give people a sense of control over their symptoms, instead of being at the mercy of them. For example, the patients in the two trials just mentioned were given specific suggestions such as imagining that their bowel function was like a smoothly flowing river. Such positive images eventually trigger real, physical improvements.
Gut-directed hypnotherapy may be an alternative treatment to try if you have not responded well to standard IBS therapy. The treatments can be expensive and many insurance plans won’t cover them. If there isn’t a trained hypnotist in your community, you could also try cognitive behavioral therapy. Clinical trials have shown that this type of therapy also triggers positive results in reducing IBS symptoms.
Lindors, P., et al., “Effects of Gut-Directed Hypnotherapy on IBS in Different Clinical Settings—Results From Two Randomized, Controlled Trials,” Am J Gastroenterol 2012; 107: 276–285.
Cretu, D., “Hypnosis, even in “real world,” may help IBS,” HealthNews web site, Jan. 8, 2013; http://www.healthnews.com/en/news/Hypnosis-even-in-real-world-may-help-IBS/1iVcpimX1DoffidMcS_BuE/, last accessed Jan. 7, 2014.