Just a Sensitive Stomach? Study Shows the Impact of IBS on Patients’ Lives

Research hopes to clear up the myths about this mysterious gut condition.

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In a way, a diagnosis of IBS (or irritable bowel syndrome) can actually be a relief for some patients to hear. It’s definitely not as detrimental to the body as other possible bowel-related diagnoses, like inflammatory bowel disease or colon cancer. IBS leaves no noticeable damage on the digestive tract, despite causing frequent gut distress.

But that doesn’t mean IBS is “no big deal.” 

The cause of IBS is still not clearly understood by doctors, but the leading theory is a glitch in the “mind-gut connection.” That is, the mind detects a problem when there isn’t one, and painful gut symptoms ensue—but that does *not* mean that IBS is “all in your head.” 

In fact, while it’s hard to measure the pain caused by IBS, numerous studies have demonstrated the ways IBS can wreak havoc on someone’s quality of life. Adding to this research, a 2018 article in The American Journal of Gastroenterology surveyed over 500 patients with IBS to see how symptoms affected their work lives.

Here’s what the researchers found: Among the employed participants, about a quarter of them reported missing work due to IBS symptoms, demonstrating the severity of the bowel distress and abdominal pain caused by IBS.

But furthermore, almost 90 percent of the participants reported presenteeism, which is when you physically attend work, but your productivity suffers due to your symptoms. 

Presenteeism may be common since patients may feel embarrassed missing work because of “upset stomach,” or worry that their boss won’t believe them. (Have you ever said “my stomach hurts” to get out of something you didn’t want to do?)

Unfortunately, presenteeism in the study was linked to a lower quality of life. That means “pushing through” and going to work may take a toll on your life, even if it makes you appear like a more dedicated employee.

IBS can be tough to treat, and many of the options that are currently available aren’t effective for everyone. That means finding effective therapies could be life-changing for the millions of people who suffer from IBS around the world.