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Dealing with chronic digestive problems is frustrating, especially when medical intervention offers little help. Approximately 60-70 million Americans are affected by chronic digestive problems, one of the most common being 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 support IBS sufferers. However, several additional strategies for supporting bowel health and relieving symptoms help massage therapists empower clients with IBS.

About Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Previously known as spastic colon, IBS affects between 25 and 45 million people in the United States and are broken down into three types:

  1. IBS with constipation
  2. IBS with diarrhea
  3. IBS with mixed bowel habits (constipation and diarrhea)

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 the prevalence of IBS, many people suffer silently because of the embarrassing symptoms, the most common of which are:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Bloating
  • 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 disagree on the origin of irritable bowel syndrome. Three proposed physiological causes for IBS are:

  • 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.
  • 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 its way through.
  • Hormonal – Since women are twice as likely to have IBS as men, some believe hormones are a causative factor. Additionally, the symptoms of IBS are often worse during or surrounding a woman’s menses.

Massage Therapy Intervention for IBS

For most 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.

It’s important to note that IBS is a complex condition with a multifactorial etiology, and the specific causes can vary among individuals. A client’s treatment strategies often involve addressing a combination of factors, including dietary modifications, stress management, medication, and other therapies aimed at symptom management and improving quality of life.

But, 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. Also, gentle abdominal massage, in particular, may help stimulate healthy peristalsis and improve overall comfort. Additional suggestions for improving intestinal health include:

  • Identify Triggering Factors and Apply Dietary Adjustments – Recommend that your client work with their healthcare providers to identify any triggering foods or emotional circumstances and avoid them, as well as discuss other dietary adjustments that can be made to help make it easier to pass stool and regulate bowel movements.
  • Deep Breathing – Stress management techniques can also be beneficial in reducing symptoms. 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 certain yogurts and dietary supplements, probiotics are good bacteria that occupy the intestines. For many sufferers, supplementing with probiotics improves the intestine’s bacterial balance, ultimately easing 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, regular relaxation-based massages typically reduce the frequency and severity of irritable bowel syndrome symptoms. Giving your clients the tools to help themselves proves invaluable, helping them gain control over their intestinal health.

Don’t forget: It’s important for clients and massage therapists to communicate openly about any concerns or discomfort during massage sessions, such as the need to use the bathroom or concerns about passing gas. Creating a safe and supportive environment can help clients feel more comfortable and relaxed during treatment.

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Podcast: IBS: “I Have a Client Who…” Pathology Conversations with Ruth Werner