To review and examine the clinical and research literature on irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) with a view to establishing the role that psychiatric factors play in the pathogenesis and treatment of this syndrome.
Comorbid psychiatric illness is common with IBS, yet only a small proportion of these patients seek medical attention. Many patients are either satisfied by reassurance or experience symptom relief from medical treatment directed at target symptoms. A small group of patients do not experience much relief, and it is largely this group who come to the psychiatrist's attention. Psychotropic medication is helpful when clinically indicated, and tricyclic antidepressants in small doses (for example, 50 mg) may be helpful for those patients with a pain-predominant pattern of IBS. Psychotherapy (including cognitive, behavioural, relaxation, thermal-biofeedback, insight-oriented therapy, and hypnosis) has been shown to provide relief, although it has often been difficult to differentiate this improvement from a placebo response.
The group of patients with “refractory IBS” used a large amount of health care resources in an attempt to find relief to their distress. Further study is needed to gain a better understanding of which component of psychotherapy is most cost-effective and which patients are most likely to benefit. The large group of those who admit to symptoms compatible with IBS but who do not seek medical attention has to a large extent been excluded from most studies. Exploring this group may provide further insight into this perplexing syndrome.