Last year I reported on a study that showed that psychotherapy was effective at reducing the physical pain of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and that, at the same time, it was superior to medication at reducing healthcare costs associated with the illness. A new meta-analysis extends the work on psychological treatments for IBS and shows that talking therapies are also effective for improving the mental health and quality of life sufferers. Quality of Life is a psychological measure that looks at the wellbeing of an individual or group and can assess how much satisfaction they derive from their lives or from an aspect of it, such as work or relationships. IBS can reduce quality of life by getting in the way of normal daily activities like work or socialising and can create mental distress but, for example, increasing anxiety around eating and meal times, depression and, in severe cases, suicidal thoughts.
This new meta-analysis looked not only at the efficacy of psychotherapy on improving mental health in IBS sufferers but also at which type of therapy was most effective. The researchers collated 31 randomised controlled trials that provided data on overall mental health and daily functioning of nearly 2000 individuals from different countries. The researchers found that all kinds of psychotherapy were effective at improving psychological wellbeing, people felt better. When it came to daily function cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) appeared to be the most effective, compared to psychodynamic, hypnosis or relaxation therapy.
Whilst this research is encouraging in relation to the value of therapy in treatment of IBS it does present with a number of problems. First, the researchers have been unable to distinguish between what types of CBT were being provided. For example, some ‘brands’ of CBT focus more on mindfulness, whilst others focus on acceptance and behaviour change. It may be that there is further variability within these groups. In addition, CBT was by far the most studied therapy. Looking at mental health, for example, there were 19 CBT trails compared to 3 psychodynamic. More research on other types of psychotherapy will be useful to add strength to the conclusions. Also, another paper published this year suggested that though CBT did lead to improvements in quality of life for IBS sufferers the results did not last long after the therapy ended.
What we can be surer of is that psychological therapy does improve the mental wellbeing of IBS patients and can be an important tool in helping improve their quality of life. Though there is further research required this meta-analysis adds to the body of research highlighting the powerful role that psychological therapies play in IBS treatment.
Laird, K. T., Tanner-Smith, E. E., Russell, A. C., Hollon, S. D. & Walker, L. S. (2017). Comparative efficacy of psychological therapies for improving mental health and daily functioning in irritable bowel syndrome: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 51, 142-152. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2016.11.001
Dehkordi AH, Solati K. The effects of cognitive behavioral therapy and drug therapy on quality of life and symptoms of patients with irritable bowel syndrome. Journal of Advanced Pharmaceutical Technology & Research. 2017;8(2):67-72. doi:10.4103/japtr.JAPTR_170_16.