Traditional treatments work well for IBS

Consumer Reports News: November 25, 2008 02:54 PM

Sometimes the old ones really are the best.

If you've suffered from irritable bowel syndrome, you'll know how uncomfortable it can be. So a new study that suggests simple, traditional treatments really can work is good news.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can give you painful stomach cramps, cause bloating, and either constipation or diarrhea. This can make it hard to get on with everyday life. It happens because the muscles of the intestine don't work as they should.

In recent years, a number of new drugs for IBS have been launched, but some have had serious side effects. So researchers decided to go back to basics and look again at research for older, more traditional treatments. They looked at studies on peppermint oil capsules, fiber supplements and anti-spasmodic drugs. Anti-spasmodic drugs relax the wall of your bowels.

They found some good evidence that these simple treatments can provide relief. Peppermint oil capsules seemed to work especially well, with 3 in 4 people having improved symptoms. You can buy peppermint oil capsules from health food stores and drug stores.

The fiber has to be soluble. Wheat bran didn't help. In fact it made some people's symptoms worse. Soluble fiber supplements available from health food stores and drug stores include psyllium (brand names Metamucil, Fiberall and Perdiem), methylcellulose (Citrucel) and polycarbophil (one of its brand names is Fibercon). The anti-spasmodic drug that had the best evidence was hyoscyamine (brand names Anaspaz and Levsin). You need a prescription from your doctor for this drug.

None of the studies showed serious side effects for these treatments, although they can cause less serious side effects for some people. If you're worried about digestive symptoms or pain, you should see your doctor to check it isn't something more serious.

What you need to know. If you have irritable bowel syndrome, it might be best to start with simple treatments like peppermint oil, fiber, or anti-spasmodic drugs. There's a reasonably good chance one of them will help.

—Anna Sayburn, patient editor, BMJ Group has partnered with The BMJ Group to monitor the latest medical research and assess the evidence to help you decide which news you should use.

Find out what questions you should ask your doctor about IBS and take a look at our Treatment Ratings (subscribers only) for the condition, including more on peppermint oil.

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