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UPDATED June 2015

Dealing with chronic digestive problems is frustrating, especially when medical intervention offers little help. Affecting up to 60-70 million Americans, one of the more common chronic digestive problems is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Because it is so common, most bodyworkers will have at least one client suffering from IBS. In and of itself, relaxation-based massage can help IBS sufferers. However, several additional strategies for supporting bowel health and relieving symptoms helps massage therapists empower their clients with IBS.

About Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Previously known as spastic colon, approximately one in four American adults has IBS. While its symptoms are usually not as severe as the more serious intestinal diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, IBS can dramatically interfere with someone’s quality of life. Despite its prevalence, many people suffer silently because of the embarrassing symptoms, the most common of which are:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Bloating
  • Flatulence
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Alternating diarrhea and constipation
  • Mucus in the stool

Although IBS does not injure the intestines or increase colon cancer risk, its symptoms can mask or be concurrent with other more serious diseases. Therefore, chronic bowel problems are always best evaluated by a physician prior to being labeled as IBS.

Experts do not agree on the origin of irritable bowel syndrome. Three proposed physiological causes for IBS are:

  1. Muscular – Normally, the intestine walls’ muscles contract and relax in a coordinated rhythm to move food from the stomach through the intestinal tract. However, the intestines of someone with IBS tend towards a longer and stronger contraction time, resulting in cramping pain, gas, bloating and diarrhea. When the relaxing action of the intestine’s muscles dominates, the passage of food slows down and results in constipation.
  2. Neurological – Since the nervous system regulates muscular contraction and bowel sensation, a neurological imbalance may be behind IBS. A typical reason for IBS pain is an enhanced sensitivity to the normal stretching of the intestines as food or gas makes their way through.
  3. Hormonal – Since women are twice as likely to have IBS as men, some believe that hormones are a causative factor. Additionally, the symptoms of IBS are often worse during or surrounding a woman’s menses.

Massage Therapy Intervention

For a majority of sufferers, IBS symptoms are aggravated by certain foods and stress. However, most experts agree that stress and food sensitivities do not cause irritable bowel syndrome. Despite its unidentified origins, IBS can be controlled largely with dietary adjustments and stress management.

For massage therapists, helping clients release stress typically has a dramatic effect on lessening unwanted intestinal symptoms. For this reason, a traditional relaxation-based Swedish massage lessens IBS severity in many people. Additional suggestions for improving intestinal health include:

  • Deep Breathing – Deep breathing can be taught during a massage session and should be routinely practiced by the client. Instead of breathing from the chest only, diaphragmatic breathing allows the belly to expand and contract fully, which helps relax local muscles fostering more normal bowel activity.
  • Probiotics – Those with IBS may be overrun with symptom-causing bacteria. Found in yogurt and dietary supplements, probiotics are the good bacteria that occupy the intestines. For many sufferers, supplementing with probiotics improves the intestine’s bacterial balance, which ultimately eases symptoms.
  • Heat – Because heat expands and thus relaxes muscles, applying a hot pack over cramping intestines often provides immediate pain relief. Additionally, heat’s ability to induce relaxation makes it a wise choice for preventing the stress buildup that typically precipitates an IBS attack. In addition to beginning a massage session with a hot pack on the lower belly, encourage your client to use one at home.

Because stress aggravates IBS, receiving regular relaxation-based massages typically reduces the frequency and severity of irritable bowel syndrome’s symptoms. However, giving your clients the tools to help themselves proves invaluable. By instructing people with IBS to practice a regular deep breathing routine, supply their intestines with good bacteria and apply heat to their lower abdomen, you can help your client gain control over their own intestinal health.

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Recommended Study:

Advanced Anatomy and Physiology
Swedish Massage for Professionals

More Information:

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): Description and Massage Precautions