Patients found their IBS worsened during pandemic

Stress about COVID-19 likely played a role in irritable bowel symptoms, researchers suggest.

A small study led by UW Medicine researchers found that individuals with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and comorbid anxiety or depression reported that the COVID-19 crisis increased their stress, anxiety, and depression as well as abdominal pain.

The recently published study in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology reported that 55 patients experienced greater symptoms of cramping, abdominal pain, constipation and diarrhea.  While the exact cause of IBS is unknown, it can be brought on by stress and anxiety, said Kendra Kamp, a postdoctorate fellow in gastroenterology at the University of Washington School of Medicine.  She was the study's lead author.

“It is possible that symptoms vary over time or differ based on COVID-19 restrictions or the knowledge of COVID-19,” Kamp said. The individuals, who were part of a larger study at the school, were interviewed between May and August of 2020.

Participants reported that the COVID-19 pandemic most commonly influenced their time with friends and family, shopping for certain foods, and access to healthcare, the report stated. Participants also reported increased stress (92%), anxiety (81%) and depressive symptoms (67%). In parallel, 44% to 48% reported increases in abdominal pain, diarrhea and constipation.

Kamp noted that responses to many study questions, specifically those regarding anxiety and IBS symptoms, might differ now that more is known about COVID-19, vaccines are widely available, and social restrictions are being lifted. 

The larger gastroenterology study involves patients providing feedback about a self-management intervention of cognitive behavioral therapy and relaxation techniques to control IBS. “We found these techniques effective in clinical trials; now we are looking for ways to get this integrated into primary care,” Kamp said.

Patients usually are directed to a GI specialist by their primary care provider. Since wait times to see a specialist can be long, researchers are exploring ways that primary care providers might provide more  guidance for these patients. For instance, many people with IBS have found that self-care techniques such as abdominal breathing or progressive muscle relaxation can reduce symptoms.

Research reported in this presentation was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health (P50MH115837), the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (UL1 TR002319), and the National Information Center on Health Services Research and Health Care Technology (T32DK007742). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

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Tags:IBS (irritable bowel syndrome)stressCOVID-19

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