Psychotherapy Reduces Physical Symptoms in Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is the name given to a collection of abdominal and digestive symptoms. Typically suffers present abdominal pain and bloating, diarrhoea or constipation. Doctors are unclear as to what causes the symptoms but have linked the syndrome to altered immune function, stress and inflammation and, in some instances, abnormalities in the gut microbiome. Additionally, there is no known cure for IBS leaving sufferers in ongoing pain and discomfort that significantly impairs their quality of life.

A meta-analysis published this year has shown that psychotherapy is an effective long term treatment for reducing symptom severity in IBS. The researchers included only high-quality (random controlled trial) studies and the final analysis included data from a pool of 2290 individuals. Trials included standard psychological therapy as well as relaxation technique training, individual and group treatments and therapy provided in-person or by a therapist online.

Psychological treatments were shown to be effective both at short term (1-6 months) and long-term follow (6 month-one year); the treatment worked and the effects lasted. This study follows an earlier(2) meta-analysis that showed psychotherapy to be as effective as antidepressant medication at improving quality of life for IBS sufferers, but that psychotherapy was more effective than medication at reducing subsequent healthcare costs.


1. Laird KT, Tanner-Smith EE, Russell AC, Hollon SD, Walker LS, Short- and Long- Term Efficacy of Psychological Therapies for Irritable Bowel Syndrome: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis, Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology (2016), doi: 10.1016/j.cgh.2015.11.020.

2. Creed, F., Fernandes, L., Guthrie, E., Palmer, S., Ratcliffe, J., Read, N., Rigby, C., Thompson, D., Tomenson, B. on behalf of the North of England IBS Research Group. The cost-effectiveness of psychotherapy and paroxetine for severe irritable bowel syndrome.  Gastroenterology, 124, 303-317.