Digital Therapeutics for IBS

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2023

Digital therapeutics are a newer type of treatment for a variety of health conditions. For irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), digital therapeutics that address the gut-brain connection or that directly impact pain signaling are on the rise.1,2

What are digital therapeutics?

As technology advances, experts are finding more ways to use it. Digital therapeutics use technology to treat health issues with smartphone apps or special software in medical devices. The use of technology to treat disease is becoming more common every day and has limitless potential.1,2

Digital therapeutics can be used for many purposes, including:1,2

  • Tracking symptoms
  • Delivering treatments electronically
  • Closely monitoring health changes

Understanding the enteric nervous system

Most people know about the central nervous system, or CNS. Your CNS is made up of your brain and spinal cord. Your CNS sends signals to nerves throughout your body. However, you also have an enteric nervous system, or ENS.4,5

The ENS is a collection of nerves that run the length of your gut (digestive tract). The nerves of the ENS respond to the same chemicals as those in the CNS do. Feelings of “butterflies in your stomach” or changes in digestion during times of high stress are a result of your body releasing some of those chemicals.2,3,5

The brain and gut are in nonstop, 2-way contact. The link between them is so strong, the gut is sometimes called the "second brain." While they know the gut responds to mental distress, experts think the brain responds to digestive distress as well. This means that anxiety can cause an upset stomach, but stomach problems may also cause anxiety.2,3,5

Therapy-based digital therapeutics for IBS

With irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), there is a breakdown in communication between the brain and gut. This causes your brain to misread and magnify normal signals. The result is pain, diarrhea, and/or constipation.2-4

While there are other possible causes of IBS, experts think mental health distress is a big factor. As a result, part of a complete treatment plan for IBS may include therapy to address mental health concerns. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common tool. Other kinds of therapy, like gut-directed hypnotherapy, are common too.3,5-7

However, in-person therapy can be expensive. It can also be hard to access for some people. Some digital therapeutics use virtual therapy to balance the brain-gut connection and relieve IBS symptoms. Programs can last for several months and use different therapy techniques. These digital therapeutics are often accessed via smartphone app or the internet.5-8

Non-therapy-based digital therapeutics

In addition to therapy-based options, there are other types of digital therapeutics. Some use wearable devices to deliver mild electrical stimulation to nerve bundles outside the brain. This is thought to affect pain signaling in the brain. Other options directly stimulate bowel contractions that can be tracked on smartphones.1,9,10

Examples of digital therapeutics

The world of digital therapeutics is growing. New apps and tools are being created all the time. A few current digital treatment options for IBS are:2,9-12

  • Regulora – An app that uses gut-directed hypnotherapy to target IBS symptoms like pain. The program has 7 self-directed sessions that are 30 minutes each. The full program lasts 12 weeks, and a session is done every other week.
  • Mahana IBS – A 3-month program that tracks symptoms and uses CBT. CBT focuses on managing flare-ups and creating personal approaches to changing unhelpful thoughts or actions.
  • Vibrant – A device that delivers tiny vibrations to the colon that help with constipation. It does this through a small pill that you swallow. The pill vibrates as it moves through the digestive tract. Its progress can be tracked on a smartphone app.
  • IB-Stim – A small, wearable device that is placed behind the ear. It delivers mild electrical stimulation to nerve bundles in that region. These nerve bundles are involved in how the brain signals pain.

Things to know about digital therapeutics

Many digital therapeutic options are safe and effective for people with IBS. Some are even approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, not all apps or devices are as well developed as others. Some options also require a prescription to use and have side effects or risks. Before starting a new digital therapeutic, talk to your doctor to make sure it is right for you.9-12

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