Can Electrical Stimulation Soothe IBS-C Symptoms?

Scientists are making advances in treating irritable bowel syndrome with constipation (IBS-C). They are studying whether sending electrical currents into the body could ease symptoms of the condition.

Doctors do not fully understand how IBS-C works. And treatments like medicine, therapy, and changes to diet are not always effective. That is because it is tricky to treat the major symptoms of IBS-C – constipation and pain – at the same time. Plus, many pain drugs can actually make constipation worse.1

Researchers have looked into electrical stimulation to treat constipation in children for many years. Now, they have turned their attention to adults with IBS-C.

What is electrical stimulation for IBS-C?

Using electrodes placed on top of the skin, this therapy sends electrical currents to different parts of the body, like the stomach area. Electrical impulses enter the muscles and nerves, causing them to contract and relax. The therapy is not painful and does not require surgery.1,2

How could electrical stimulation treat IBS-C symptoms?

Researchers are studying whether electrical stimulation can move stool through the digestive system. The therapy could help people with IBS-C to have more regular bowel movements.2

Research about electrical stimulation for IBS-C

Studies of electrical stimulation for constipation have mainly focused on children. They show promising results in managing symptoms. Recent research looking at this type of therapy in adults with constipation has also been promising.2

One Australian study recruited a group of women with ongoing constipation. Researchers wanted to find out whether electrical stimulation could treat their condition. The women received the therapy at home for 1 hour a day over 6 weeks. Researchers then compared the effects of the therapy to those of an inactive treatment (placebo).2

They found that the women who received electrical stimulation had:2

  • 3 or more bowel movements per week
  • Less laxative use
  • An overall better quality of life

A separate study carried out over 4 weeks at a hospital in China had similar results. Like the Australian research, people with ongoing constipation received electrical stimulation or a placebo.1

In this study, electrical stimulation was applied to different acupuncture points on the skin. These points included the inner wrist, lower leg, and foot. Those who had electrical stimulation had more bowel movements and less abdominal pain than the placebo group.1

How long could the effects of electrical stimulation last?

In the studies of adults, symptom improvements lasted anywhere from 3 to 6 months after treatment. There were no treatment-related side effects. Earlier studies of children found that post-treatment symptom relief sometimes lasted more than 2 years.1,2

The bottom line

Findings from these recent studies show electrical stimulation could be a safe and effective treatment for people with IBS-C. And people with the condition may even be able to do the therapy at home.1,2

Researchers plan to conduct more extensive studies and follow participants for more time. This will help them learn more about why electrical stimulation works, how long the effects last, and what therapy guidelines should be.1,2

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