Biofeedback is a technique that can be learned to exert more control over bodily functions, such as bowel control. Biofeedback is a painless process that uses electrical sensors that monitor the body’s functions and provide information (feedback) on a computer or video display. Studies have shown biofeedback to be useful in reducing symptoms and symptom severity from IBS. In addition, it can be a cost-effective treatment.1,2

With biofeedback, the physiological responses of the body, which are usually not noticed by the patient, are sensed with the electrical sensors and computer. The visual or auditory feedback the patient experiences from the technology provide awareness of these bodily functions. Patients soon learn to influence the responses and manipulate these physiological events, thereby modifying the function of the intestines and the gastrointestinal symptoms of IBS.

How biofeedback for IBS works

One approach in IBS patients is to use a form of biofeedback therapy that utilizes a polygraph (lie detector). The polygraph measures tiny electrical changes in the skin that occur in response to stress and relaxation. The changes in the skin’s electrical activity are transformed into a computerized animation of the gut, shown on a computer screen. This animation can be controlled by the patient, who learns to manipulate the computerized representation of bowel movement using a combination of mental and physical relaxation.

In a study of computer-aided gut directed biofeedback, patients who had previously not achieved relief with conventional treatment were given 4 half-hour biofeedback sessions. Eighty percent of the patients learned to achieve deeper levels of relaxation, and in 50%, the technique proven helpful in controlling bowel symptoms on almost every occasion they became troublesome. Patients also experienced significant reductions in general bowel symptoms, such as abdominal pain, urgency of defecation, and global well-being.3

Biofeedback and other treatments for IBS

Biofeedback is a non-surgical, non-invasive therapy option that has been shown to reduce gastrointestinal symptoms in many people. In addition, participating in this therapy can help restore a sense of personal control. However, the benefits of biofeedback vary from person to person, and patients with IBS may need to try several treatment options before finding the right one or combination that works best for them.2

Other treatments that may be an option for patients with IBS include medications, dietary changes, adding fiber or probiotics to the diet, counseling, stress management, or exercise. In addition, there are a number of complementary or alternative therapies, including herbal remedies, acupuncture and hypnotherapy.

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Written by: Emily Downward | Last reviewed: September 2021