Don't Touch My Stomach! It's Sensitive!
Last updated: December 2020
Have any of you living with IBS ever had to tell someone, maybe a loved one, not to touch your stomach because it would intensify your symptoms? For instance, I had to tell my wife on numerous occasions that I was not able to cuddle with her because, for some reason, another human touch would just trigger more pain and/or an urgent need to use the toilet. For a long time, it didn’t make sense to me why just a slight stimulation from someone else could exaggerate my pain. There were many times when my wife would merely just put her arm around my stomach, and literally within a few seconds I had to run to the toilet because the sensation was just too much for me to handle.
This happened inevitably, especially in the mornings, if she were to touch me while I was suffering from my symptoms. I felt so horrible both physically and emotionally because I wanted nothing more than to be intimate with my wife whenever and wherever, but her touch can sometimes trigger such a negative reaction for me. (Needless to say that there are many, many, many times that I decide to sacrifice my pain because I need and want my wife’s touch. I refuse to let IBS dictate my life all the time, no matter how much pain I’m in.)
What is visceral hypersensitivity?
Nonetheless, after doing extensive research, my theory as to why I get such a painful reaction to external touch sometimes is due to something called visceral hypersensitivity. Now, this might sound familiar to a lot of you, but to those of you who are new to this term, it basically means that certain nerve cells in our gut that act as the pain receptors in our intestines overreact to normal gut activity.
For instance, as Melissa G. Hunt describes it best in her book Reclaim Your Life From IBS, “most people are not aware of peristalsis or segmentation contractions. They don’t notice when a gas bubble moves along or pops. However, the sensory neurons in those with IBS may transmit this information more ‘loudly’ to their brain.”1 I think this is a perfect explanation of visceral hypersensitivity and why those of us with IBS feel such an intense amount of pain when it comes to normal activity occurring in our gut. It’s a biological response that we cannot help, and therefore it is not all in our heads. The millions of nerve cells in our guts are sending false messages to our brains which makes the perception of pain seem more intense than it really is, even if our bowels are functioning normally.
With all that being said, I feel visceral hypersensitivity could be the best explanation as to why I feel an exaggerated level of discomfort and pain when my wife touches my stomach, which usually ends up giving me sharp pains or sending me to the toilet right after. This is not to say that her touches cause the visceral hypersensitivity. However instead, as a result of the hypersensitivity, her touches causes my body to exaggerate my perception of pain. Due to this newfound term, I now have a better understanding as to why normal activity in my gut affects me differently than those who don’t experience IBS.
Medical explanation to validate pain
I was happy when I came across the term “visceral hypersensitivity” because I was finally able to understand a medical explanation that could validate my pain. In fact, in 2011 Nature Reviews Gastroenterology and Hepatology published an article stating that “visceral hypersensitivity might have use as a clinical marker of IBS and could account for symptoms of urgency for bowel movements, bloating and abdominal pain.”2 I think this is great news because to date, doctors have only been able to diagnose IBS by process of elimination. Scientists and medical experts are finally getting closer to finding a way to diagnose IBS via blood sample or stool sample, which could lead us one step closer to a remedy or even a cure one day that actually works long term.
I’m obviously not an expert on the topic of visceral hypersensitivity because I’m still learning about it. However, I suggest anyone living with IBS to do their proper research on the matter because I think it will give them at least some answers to the questions they’ve been wondering about. Also, during those conversations when people say it’s all in our heads, or that we’re over-exaggerating, we can tell them to tell that to the millions of nerve cells in our gut. BOOM!
Which of the following symptoms of IBS do you experience most frequently?