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Scientists Identify Cause of IBS Pain

An estimated 3 million American adults suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, combatting symptoms such as frequent abdominal discomfort, spastic colon, gas, bloating, diarrhea and constipation. Researchers at Flinders University have recently identified a link between itchy skin and gut pain that they hope will be a key discovery in battling chronic pain caused by IBS.

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If you suffer from IBS, you may be familiar with the feeling of an “itchy gut.” Researchers have identified receptors that cause itchy skin that also exist in the human gut. These receptors activate neurons, resulting in the feeling of a painful “gut itch” in IBS sufferers. It turns out these itch receptors may be more present in IBS patients than in healthy people. The more the neurons are activated, the more pain the patient feels.

NHMRC and Matthew Flinders Research Fellow in Gastrointestinal Neuroscience, Professor Stuart Brierley, believes the discovery may lead to a new way of treating the underlying cause of IBS gut pain, since the traditional pain management approach — opioids — aren’t doing anything to fix the problem.

He explained, “We found receptors which bring about an itchy feeling on skin also do the same in in the gut, so these patients are essentially suffering from a 'gut itch'. We've translated these results to human tissue tests and now hope to help create a treatment where people can take an oral medication for IBS."

"Patients with IBS suffer from chronic abdominal pain and experience rewiring of their nervous system so they feel pain when they shouldn't — we decided to ask important questions about how nerves in the gut are activated to cause pain in order to seek out potential solutions."

Bierley compared the pain to what’s known as a ‘wasabi receptor’ in the nervous system, which helps the body react to the spicy Japanese condiment. "If you think about what happens when you eat wasabi, it activates a receptor on the nerves and sends a pain signal — that's exactly what's happening within in their gut as they experience an itchy effect or wasabi effect in the gut,” he explained.

"Having shown these mechanisms contribute to chronic gut pain, we can now work out ways to block these receptors and thereby stop the 'gut itch' signal traveling from the gut to the brain. This will be a far better solution that the problems currently presented by opioid treatments."