Some health problems are pretty simple to understand. If you have a sore throat, your doctor will take a swab and run tests to see if you have a strep infection. An odd-looking lump can be biopsied to see if it is cancerous. Unfortunately, with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) it’s just not that simple.
IBS is a tough disorder to understand. Estimates suggest it affects as many as 1:5 Americans. However, studies have failed to show any structural problems in the gut that would account for the symptoms of pain, bloating, diarrhea and constipation, leading cynics to suggest it’s “all in the mind”.
Now researchers have found a possible connection between IBS and the brain. Using MRI scans, scientists revealed changes in the brains of women with the disorder. They took MRI scans of 55 IBS patients and 48 healthy women for comparison. Women with IBS tended to have decreases in gray matter in parts of the brain that govern attention and areas that suppress pain.
A similar link between the brain and chronic pain has been identified in other disorders, such as lower back pain and migraine. The study on IBS suggests that, like these other conditions, the problem may be due to the brain’s inability to inhibit the pain response.
Emeran Mayer MD, co-author of the UCLA study said, “The findings remove the idea once and for all that IBS symptoms are not real and are ‘only psychological and will give us more insight into better understanding IBS.”