Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition that affects the digestive system, which is responsible for breaking down and absorbing food. While the most common symptoms are abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea, some people with IBS also report having back pain.
Experts believe this could be due to intestinal discomfort or what’s known as “referred pain,” in which the brain accidentally signals IBS pain to be felt in a different area of the body. Fortunately, treatment options are available once a healthcare provider confirms the underlying cause.
This article explores the potential causes of IBS back pain and when you should consider seeking treatment.
What Causes IBS Pain?
Abdominal pain is the most common symptom of IBS. This pain is usually felt near the intestines, but there’s no physical harm to your organs. While IBS pain is very real, it’s not due to obvious, physical damage in the body.
Researchers are still figuring out exactly what causes IBS and the pain associated with it. It likely involves one or more of the following factors:
- Physical sensations: Cramps and pain can result as the muscles in your intestines contract to move food through your digestive tract.
- Hypersensitivity: Extra-sensitive nerves in the gastrointestinal tract can make mild digestive sensations feel extraordinarily painful.
- Gut-brain connection: Over time, there can be widespread miscommunication in the way your brain interacts with the nerves in your digestive tract.
Further, IBS pain may be worsened by the psychosocial factors associated with the condition. Thoughts or feelings of anxiety or distress can stimulate an exaggerated painful response from your gut.
The Brain’s Role
The severity and location of IBS pain varies from person to person. Long-term IBS pain may be caused by overactive nerve receptors sending pain messages from the intestines to the brain, even when your body is carrying out normal digestive activity.
The Link Between IBS and Back Pain
In addition to abdominal-related symptoms, research shows that people with IBS are likely to feel pain in other parts of the body. As many as 81% of people with IBS may also experience back pain.
While the root cause of this back pain varies by person, researchers think it could be linked to IBS in the following ways:
- Physical factors: Sensations in the intestines like gas pressure, colon spasms, or swollen bowels can lead to pain in the abdomen and lower back.
- Referred pain: In many health conditions, pain originating in one part of the body (in this case, the intestines) can be felt in another part of the body (in this case, the back).
- Another health condition: People with IBS often experience other inflammatory health conditions at the same time, such as fibromyalgia, interstitial cystitis, or rheumatoid arthritis. These conditions can include back pain as a primary symptom.
Back pain is a common complaint among IBS patients, though the underlying cause may differ. Experts believe it could be due to physical symptoms like gas or bloating, referred pain, or unknowingly having another health condition at the same time.
The key symptom of IBS is pain or discomfort in the abdomen. But other symptoms that do not involve the abdomen can also occur, like back pain.
Additional related symptoms include:
It’s important to talk to a healthcare provider about any new or worsening symptoms that come with your IBS. If IBS pain becomes severe or involves bleeding, vomiting, or breathing problems, seek immediate medical care.
It may be helpful to keep a symptom diary to record your symptoms, how they change over time, and how they’re affected by your diet, stress levels, and daily life activities.
Treatment for IBS Back Pain
Before starting any treatment plans for IBS back pain, your healthcare provider will first try to confirm the underlying cause. Questions they may work to find answers to include:
- Is it related to physical sensations throughout the abdominal area?
- Is it referred pain?
- Might it be due to a totally different condition altogether?
From there, they may recommend one or more of the following treatment options for IBS back pain:
- Activity modification: Gentle physical activity, rather than lying down or being sedentary, is typically good for IBS symptoms like gas and general back pain. Exercise is also known to reduce stress, which can prompt IBS symptoms. Ice and heat application following exercise may help further relive pain.
- Medications: Taking Tylenol (acetaminophen) for pain is often the best choice for people with IBS, as NSAIDs like ibuprofen can trigger gastrointestinal issues. Topical medications like lidocaine can also provide relief. If the pain is severe, a healthcare provider may consider prescription medications like short-term muscle relaxers or steroid injections to decrease inflammation.
- Alternative therapies: Alternative treatments for back pain like acupuncture, massage and chiropractic treatments can be effective options. In addition, relaxation exercises and cognitive behavioral therapy may be successful in addressing the stress response that triggers IBS symptoms.
- Dietary adjustments: An important part of managing IBS is targeting specific food triggers. If your back pain is caused by IBS-related gas movement, your healthcare provider may recommend avoiding food and drinks that prompt gas production.
It’s wise to speak to a healthcare provider to discuss back pain treatment options and rule out other conditions as the cause. Fortunately, there are a variety of treatment options for back pain that are safe for people with IBS. Managing your IBS well may also ease back pain.
People with IBS commonly experience pain in other parts of the body, including the back. Experts think this may be due to the physical sensations of IBS, having another painful condition, or referred pain (pain felt in another part of the body away from the actual source). A healthcare provider can help determine the source of the pain and recommend an individualized treatment plan to manage the pain.
A Word From Verywell
For the millions of people who have IBS, living with the condition can be physically, emotionally, and socially challenging. Adding back pain into the mix can make the situation even more frustrating. Remember that stress is a common trigger for IBS symptoms, so getting to the root of your pain and treating it will help. Don’t hesitate to bring up any new or changing IBS symptoms, like back pain, to your healthcare provider.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is chronic pain common with irritable bowel syndrome?
Chronic pain—particularly in the abdominal area—is a main symptom experienced by people with IBS. In addition, IBS patients are often diagnosed with other chronic pain-related conditions, such as migraine, fibromyalgia, and osteoarthritis. Researchers are still looking into this link.
How long does IBS back pain last?
It depends on the underlying cause of your back pain. When pain is chronic, it can take time (weeks or months) to go away. The upside is that taking good care of your IBS symptoms may help relieve your back pain. If it’s due to another underlying cause, there are treatment options available that can help speed up recovery.
What can you do to get rid of IBS back pain?
First, check with a healthcare provider to rule out any other causes of your back pain, which may require different care. If it’s determined that your back pain is linked to IBS, treatment options such as physical activity, pain-relieving medications, alternative therapies, and diet adjustments may be recommended.