Can IBS Cause Back Pain?

Can IBS cause back pain? How are the two related? What are the treatments for IBS—and can those therapies help ease discomfort in your back?

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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may not be life-threatening, but anyone who says it’s not life-changing has probably never experienced the gas, bloating, abdominal pain and changes in bathroom habits the condition causes.

As if that weren’t enough, many people with IBS also develop symptoms outside of their intestines. One of the most common of these is back pain.

Can IBS cause back pain? How are the two related? Most important, what are the treatments for IBS—and can those therapies help ease discomfort in your back? Here’s what you should know.

What Is IBS?

IBS back painBack pain can be a symptom of IBS

In a nutshell, irritable bowel syndrome is a chronic disorder affecting the lower part of your digestive tract. It is characterized by abdominal pain and diarrhea or constipation, or some combination of the two. Many IBS patients typically experience cramping, gas and/or bloating, as well. These symptoms can be mild or severe, and can come and go—and there may be times when you don’t have symptoms any at all.

It’s estimated that between 10 and 20 percent of American adults have IBS, and women are about twice as likely as men to develop the syndrome. Most of the time it’s diagnosed in people under age 50, and having a family history of IBS increases your risk.

Doctors and scientists don’t know the exact cause of IBS, though it’s widely believed to involve the gut-brain connection, or the way your brain interacts with your gastrointestinal tract. Anxiety can trigger or worsen symptoms, as can hormone fluctuations and certain food choices.

There is no single test to diagnose IBS. Instead, doctors rely on a taking medical history, performing a physical exam and ruling out other illnesses. No cure exists for IBS either, though a wide range of treatments can help relieve symptoms for many people.

While it won’t permanently damage your intestines and doesn’t cause colorectal cancer, IBS can severely impact your day-to-day function. Many patients experience anxiety along with job, school and relationship disruptions, all of which can lead to a lower quality of life.

Can IBS Cause Back Pain?

In addition to bloating and gas, people with IBS often develop extraintestinal symptoms, or symptoms that involve body parts beyond the gut. These may include sleep problems, headaches, urination troubles, fatigue, muscle pain, pain in the pelvis or jaw—and back pain.

Back pain is common among IBS patients, though the exact incidence is unknown. Studies estimate it affects between 28 and 81 percent of people with the disorder. Some experts believe that it may be referred pain, or pain that originates elsewhere in the body and is felt in the back. In research, gastrointestinal symptoms like gas and bloating have been linked to back pain.

Another possibility: People with IBS often have other health conditions at the same time, which are also frequently associated with backaches. These include interstitial cystitis—a chronic illness that causes bladder pressure and pain—and the pain condition fibromyalgia. Studies have found that about 3 in 10 people diagnosed with IBS meet the criteria for fibromyalgia, as well.

In addition, IBS can be associated with other inflammatory conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, which could lead to back pain. IBS symptoms with back pain should prompt you to head to the doctor so you can be sure your symptoms aren’t caused by any other underlying medical conditions.

IBS Treatments and Living With IBS

Treatment for IBS differs from person to person, but generally focuses on relieving symptoms and improving overall quality of life. There are numerous therapies available. None will work for everybody with IBS, and frequently the best approach is a mix of strategies.

For those with back pain, there’s good news: Treating your IBS may also help to ease back pain without specifically targeting your back. You won’t need surgery for IBS-related back pain, and you can likely avoid long-term painkiller use by treating the other symptoms of IBS. Speak with a healthcare provider to find the right combination for you.

Yoga for IBS and backpainYoga's physical and mental benefits make it an effective complementary treatment for both IBS and back pain

Common treatments include:

  • Dietary changes. There is no specific diet for IBS. Your doctor may recommend changing your fiber intake or keeping a food diary to help pinpoint items that trigger your symptoms. They may also suggest limiting citrus, carbonated drinks and high-FODMAP foods, or foods that contain a carbohydrate linked to gastrointestinal troubles. These include wheat, dairy and legumes (beans).
  • Stress reduction techniques. People who experience high levels of stress often feel pain more intensely, whether it’s gastrointestinal pain or back pain. Practices like deep breathing, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery may ease tensions. Exercise can also help; yoga, tai chi, walking, swimming, jogging and biking are often recommended to IBS patients.
  • Therapy. Some IBS patients can benefit by speaking with a mental health professional. Studies have found that cognitive behavioral therapy, during which you learn how to recognize and change your response to stress, may be especially valuable for dealing with either IBS or back pain.
  • Medication. Depending on your symptoms—and in some cases, the underlying cause of your IBS—pharmacological therapy (drugs) may help. Antidepressants can ease pain for some patients, for example, while an anti-diarrheal like loperamide may reduce diarrhea in certain others. Discuss any medication you take with a doctor, however, because the wrong drug can make your IBS worse.
  • Complementary health practices. Many IBS patients find relief with alternative therapies, and certain techniques are backed by research. Hypnosis, in particular, has been linked to improved gastrointestinal symptoms, lower levels of anxiety and other benefits.

Quite a few people with IBS take probiotics, supplements believed to help balance out beneficial gut bacteria. Though there is some evidence that probiotics may help relieve certain IBS symptoms, overall, the research is inconclusive. Ask your doctor if probiotics are right for you.

The Bottom Line

Many IBS patients also have back pain, and certain therapies can improve both. If you have IBS and feel pain in your back, get in touch with a healthcare provider. They can help you learn why you might be feeling uncomfortable, test you for other conditions and start you on treatments to ease your symptoms. The faster you reach out, the faster you can begin feeling better.

Not sure what’s causing your back pain? Check out our roundup of some of the most—and least—common back pain causes.

Updated on: 04/14/20
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Michael G. Fehlings, MD, PhD, FRCSC, FACS
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