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An at-home therapy that uses the mind to relieve irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome is a common, costly and uncomfortable condition that's difficult to treat and embarrassing to deal with.

That's why researchers, including those involved with a new study from the University at Buffalo, are attempting to come up with low-tech, practical solutions -- things like learning to identify triggers and strategies to relax.

The 40 million Americans, most of them female, who suffer from what's known as IBS often feel frustrated by a lack of effective medical and dietary therapies. There's also a stigma that symptoms are imagined because the condition isn't identified by medical tests.

An alternative treatment involves addressing behaviors, emotions, and thoughts, and it has shown to be helpful in many cases. However, only a fraction of patients receive cognitive therapy with so few specialists, especially outside of urban areas, who offer it.

The UB study offers a promising answer to the problem -- an at-home cognitive therapy that requires little contact with a medical specialist that appears to relieve symptoms as well or better than traditional therapy.

“This is a novel, game-changing treatment approach for a public health problem that has real personal and economic costs, and for which there are few medical treatments for the full range of symptoms,” said Jeffrey Lackner, lead author and director of the Behavioral Medicine Clinic in the UB Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

The study, a collaboration with New York University and Northwestern University, and published online in the journal Gastroenterology, suggests that at-home treatments can be used to relieve the chronic constipation, diarrhea, bloating and other symptoms common to IBS.

IBS is considered a disorder in which your brain and gut don't work well together. It is the most common problem seen in gastroenterology practices, according to the American Gastroenterology Association.

The success of cognitive therapy in many instances suggests that a patient can learn skills to offset the faulty signals between the parts of the body.

Of 436 patients in the study, 61 percent reported symptom improvement two weeks after home-based behavioral treatment ended compared to 55 percent in clinic-based treatment and 43 percent who received patient education.

The treatment consisted of teaching practical skills for controlling gastrointestinal symptoms, either during 10 clinic visits or four clinic sessions in conjunction with self-study materials.

Both variations of the therapy focused on information on brain-gut interactions, self-monitoring of symptoms, triggers and consequences, as well as recommendations for worry control, muscle relaxation and problem-solving.

For example, patients typically learn exercises or breathing techniques to relax, and strategies to stop negative thinking.

"Our research shows that patients can learn ways to recalibrate these brain-gut interactions in a way that brings them significant symptom improvement that has eluded them through medical treatments," said Lackner.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

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