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How to alleviate pain caused by IBS

Pain connected to IBS can show up in surprising places. Here's how to handle it.

Published:

November 11, 2022

Written by:

Dr. Max Pitman

Chief of Gastroenterology & Board-Certified Gastroenterologist

Medically Reviewed by:

Published:

November 11, 2022

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On top of causing gas, abdominal pain, and irregular bowel habits, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can also cause multiple aches and pains that don’t stem from the stomach. Which doesn’t seem fair—isn’t IBS bad enough without even more pain on top of everything else?

The tiny silver lining is that learning more about how and why pain is connected to IBS might help clear up any confusion about symptoms you may be experiencing. Pain connected to IBS can show up in surprising places, and once you know about it, you can better figure out how to handle it.

Why is IBS pain different from most other kinds of pain?

IBS pain often happens because muscles inside the gut are cramping or the intestinal walls are expanding due to gas. It’s an unfortunate, but common sensation. In fact, according to the current Rome Foundation definition, abdominal pain or discomfort (including bloating) needs to be a core feature of your symptoms before IBS can be officially diagnosed.

So when people think of IBS, they often have abdominal pain in mind. That makes sense, and IBS pain often does show up in the gut. That pain can be puzzling to deal with, however, because it’s visceral pain (pain coming from internal organs) instead of the kind of pain that comes from our skin, joints, and muscles (somatic pain), which is more familiar.

Somatic pain often feels urgent, sharp, stabbing, wrenching, or sore, whereas visceral pain can feel diffused, and can be accompanied by bloating, tenderness, nausea and stomach upsets. Visceral pain is also often referred pain, meaning it shows up in a location other than where it started out (which is why pain from gas can feel sharp, but may not stay in the same place). It can be tough to pinpoint the origin of this pain or to tell when it’s caused by IBS. How are you supposed to know, for example, that soreness and tenderness in your upper abdomen might be due to IBS, when most other IBS symptoms are happening further down?

The kinds of pain that can be linked to IBS

IBS sufferers are more likely to have pain in other parts of the body compared to people without IBS. IBS can be associated with pain such as:

  • Headaches and migraines that may be related to the gut-brain connection and the way it processes serotonin
  • Jaw pain (also called temporomandibular pain, or TMJ)
  • Chest pain from gas trapped in the digestive system
  • Back pain from gas or spasms in the gut
  • Stomach or lower abdomen cramps that may worsen with menstruation
  • Pain in the anus and rectum from constipation, hemorrhoids and anal fissures

If you experience any unusual, persistent pain anywhere, do you think it might be related to IBS? A good next step is to speak with your physician for confirmation and further direction. Your physician can also check to make sure the pain isn’t due to heart problems or any other causes. You can then plan how to handle the types of pain you’re experiencing. (If you’re a Salvo Health Member, make sure your Care Team knows about all your aches and pains so that they can help you manage every symptom.)

How to alleviate pain caused by IBS

Despite the many parts of your body where IBS-related pain can surface, there are several ways to manage the pain and make life a little more comfortable at the same time.

Control stress

Stress management is an absolute game-changer with IBS. When you feel calmer and more in control, you’re more likely to be able to soothe your IBS symptoms. IBS symptoms often worsen with stress, and then worsened symptoms can cause even more stress, leading to a vicious cycle. That’s partly because the gut-brain connection is so strong. Some researchers say, in fact, that irritable bowel syndrome also involves an “irritable brain.”

One reason for such a strong connection between the gut and brain is the amount of nerve tissue running straight from the brain to the digestive system. This connection, known as the vagus nerve, acts a bit like a two-way walkie talkie…whenever the mind is dealing with stress or other challenging issues, the digestive system may be affected. It works vice versa, too: when the digestive system is upset or very sensitive and responsive to stimuli, it can impact the brain as more stress or upset moods.

Stress management strategies that might work for you include:

  • Prioritize activities, friends, and whatever else makes you feel more calm, more in control, and more “yourself”
  • Try a meditation (many apps exist that offer IBS-appropriate meditations)
  • Complete breathing exercises (simply taking a sequence of 10-second-long inhales and exhales can help)
  • Take a (long) walk, as walking can calm the digestive system
  • Do yoga (certain poses in particular may help)
  • Try rock-climbing, dance, soccer or something else vigorous that gets your mind and body to focus on being in the moment
  • Schedule regular time with people who understand you and help you feel supported

Cut down on gas

When your intestines and colon trap gas, they can stretch, causing pain. Not everyone with IBS produces more gas than usual, but many people with IBS do swallow more air than normal or are unusually sensitive to gas retention. Sometimes people with IBS also experience irregularities with the way their bodies move gas.

Try to curb IBS pain by cutting down on gas production and retention:

  • Eat low-FODMAP foods and avoid any foods you are pretty sure make you gassy
  • Don’t chew bubble gum or suck on hard candies
  • If you smoke, try to wean yourself off it or decrease it
  • Sip straight from your glasses rather than using a straw
  • Take small bites of food and chew well
  • Eat slowly

Notice pain triggers                                                    

Some people have triggers, certain stimuli or experiences, that increase their IBS pain. If you can learn your own triggers, you can probably also decrease your pain. Look out for specific foods, emotions, places or experiences that routinely make your pain worse. These may include:

  • Stress from having to give a talk or make a presentation
  • Certain supplements, especially iron (which can cause constipation)
  • Your period
  • Eating high FODMAP or inflammatory foods (like fried foods, dairy, beans, and processed sugars)
  • Certain relationships or relationship dynamics you find challenging
  • Even being sedentary for too long!

How Salvo Health can help

Salvo Health is leading the future of digital health with a virtual clinic app that is low-cost and radically accessible for those living with IBS, GERD, SIBO or chronic gut issues.

When you download our app and become a member with Salvo Health, you get immediate access to a coordinated Salvo Health care team, including a certified gastro specialist and board-certified health coach. Your care team will communicate with you via text through the app, create a custom care plan based on your symptoms, and check in with you regularly to guide your gut health journey. Daily tasks, notifications, quizzes, and helpful articles can also keep you on track when managing your IBS!

Learn more about Salvo Health by following us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter today.

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Written by:

Dr. Max Pitman

Chief of Gastroenterology & Board-Certified Gastroenterologist

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