Major psychological trauma may increase the risk of developing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), according to Mayo Clinic researchers, who presented data from a new study on Monday.
The study involved 2,623 adults, who were surveyed about past emotional or psychological events, such as divorce, the death of a loved one, a car accident, physical or mental abuse, or surviving a natural disaster. The researchers found that those who reported more trauma in their lives were also more likely to have IBS.
Previous studies have associated childhood abuse — particularly sexual abuse — with about 50% of IBS cases. “This is the first study that looks at multiple forms of trauma, the timing of those traumas, and traumas in a family setting,” said Dr. Yuri Saito-Loftus, who presented the findings at the 76th annual meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology in Washington, D.C., in a statement. The current data suggest that other psychological traumas may be more common among IBS patients than abuse.
IBS, which is among the most common diseases for which people seek care from primary care physicians and gastroenterologists, causes abdominal pain and cramping, bloating, constipation, diarrhea and other problems. It affects at least 10% of adults, but only 5% to 7% of people have been diagnosed. IBS is about twice as common in women as in men and is most often diagnosed in people under 50. Symptoms often lead to great distress and lost workdays for sufferers.
Studies find that IBS is caused by changes in the way nerves and muscles control sensation and movement in the bowel. The root cause of the disorder is unknown, but research suggests that much of it may be psychological. The gut and brain are connected, and trauma and stress may make nerves overactive causing more sensitivity in the bowel.
Saito-Loftus urged patients not to underplay the role of stress in their conditions. “Someone who thinks they have coped with their traumatic experiences adequately on their own and continues to have IBS symptoms should be encouraged to explore professional evaluation and treatment for traumatic life experiences,” Saito-Loftus said.
The study was presented at a conference and not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal, so it should be considered preliminary.
Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.