Barbara Lantin investigates an unconventional treatment for reducing gut sensitivity

Between five and eight million people in the UK suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and many can find no treatment that brings relief. Although the condition is often regarded as minor, the symptoms – including diarrhoea, pain and bloating – can seriously affect quality of life. This month, the journal Drugs and Therapeutics Bulletin suggested that hypnotherapy may be worth a try for people with severe symptoms that do not respond to conventional treatment.

Does this mean IBS is all in the mind?

“We do not think IBS is a psychological disorder, nor do we think this is a psychological treatment,” says Peter Whorwell, professor of medicine and gastroenterology at Manchester University, who runs one of the few NHS clinics offering gut-directed hypnotherapy. “IBS is made worse by stress but it is not caused by stress. We don’t know exactly how gut-directed hypnotherapy works, but it may change the way the brain modulates gut activity.” Laboratory tests have shown that under hypnosis, gut sensitivity is reduced.

So, does it work?

Prof Whorwell has treated patients using hypnotherapy for 20 years with a success rate of about 70 per cent. “It helps all the symptoms, whereas some of the drugs available reduce only a few of the symptoms. However, men don’t do quite as well as women.” Several randomised controlled trials have shown good results. In one, group hypnotherapy proved as effective as individual sessions.

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