AGA Clinical Practice Update

Managing Pain in Gut-Brain Interaction Disorders

Jim Kling

November 11, 2021

An American Gastroenterological Association clinical practice update for gastrointestinal pain in disorders of gut-brain interaction (DGBI), published in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, emphasizes patient-physician collaboration and improvement of patient understanding of the pathways and mechanisms of pain sensations. It is aimed at management of patients in whom pain persists after first-line therapies fail to resolve visceral causes of pain.

DGBIs include irritable bowel syndrome, functional dyspepsia, and centrally mediated abdominal pain syndrome, according to Laurie Keefer, PhD, AGAF, of the division of gastroenterology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, and colleagues. Initial treatment usually focuses on visceral triggers of pain such as food and bowel movements, but this approach is ineffective for many.

Cognitive, affective, and behavioral factors can impact the treatment of these patients, making it a complex clinical problem that calls for a collaborative approach between the patient and clinician. Opioids and other drugs that could be misused should be avoided, according to the authors. Both pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic approaches can be considered, but the update did not address use of marijuana or other complementary or alternative therapies.

Effective management requires empathy and collaboration. The patient has often seen various other clinicians with suboptimal results, which has left them dissatisfied with their care. Cultural sensitivity is crucial because the understanding and interpretation of pain, and preferred management approaches, vary across cultures.

The first step is a nonjudgmental patient history using open-ended questions. Examples include: "How do your symptoms interfere with your ability to do what you want in your daily life?" or "How are these symptoms impacting your life the most?" These types of questions may identify patients who could benefit from behavioral health interventions.

Questions about symptom-related anxiety can improve understanding of patient concerns and offer an opportunity to address fears. Additional understanding of the patient's perspective can come from questions like: "What do you think is causing your symptoms," "Why are you coming to see me now?" and "What are you most concerned about with your symptoms?"

The initial assessment should ideally result in shared goals and expectations for pain management.

Providers should educate the patient about the pathogenesis of pain and how it can be modified. Pain signals can result from innocuous signals from the gut that are misinterpreted by the vigilant brain as it scans for injury or illness. That model might explain why some patients with similar diagnoses have widely differing pain experiences, and offers hope that a change in how one approaches pain might lead to improvements. Patients should be encouraged to avoid too much focus on the cause or a solution to pain, because it can interfere with acceptance of pain or, when needed, treatment.

Opioids should not be prescribed for these patients, and if they are already taking them on referral, it's important to manage them within a multidisciplinary framework until the opioids can be discontinued. Long-term use of opioids can lead to narcotic bowel syndrome, which results in chronic and often heightened abdominal pain even with escalating opioid doses. Opioid stoppage often must be accompanied by behavioral and psychiatric therapies to ensure success.

Nonpharmacological therapies such as brain-gut psychotherapies should be brought up as potential options early in treatment, even though many patients won't require this type of care. Early mention is likely to keep the patient more open to trying them because they're less likely to think of it as a sign of failure or a "last-ditch" approach. Cognitive-behavioral therapy works to improve pain management skills and bolster skill deficits, with attention to pain catastrophizing, pain hypervigilance, and visceral anxiety through different techniques.

Gut-directed hypnotherapy deals with somatic awareness and the use of imagery and suggestion to reduce pain sensations. Mindfulness-based stress reduction has been shown to be effective in inflammatory bowel disease and musculoskeletal pain syndromes. The provider should be familiar with these available methods, but should leave choice of interventions to partner mental health providers.

It's important to distinguish between gastrointestinal pain with visceral causes and centrally mediated pain. Central sensitization can cause intermittent pain to become persistent even in the absence of ongoing peripheral causes of pain.

Peripheral acting agents affect gastrointestinal pain, and a network meta-analysis identified the top three drugs for pain relief in irritable bowel syndrome as tricyclic antidepressants, antispasmodics, and peppermint oil.

Neuromodulator drugs are an option for DGBI pain because the gut nervous system shares embryonic developmental pathways with the brain and spinal cord, which helps explains some of the benefits of low-dose antidepressants, now termed gut-brain neuromodulators. These drugs should be started at a low dose and gradually titrated according to symptom response and tolerability.

The authors have financial relationships with various pharmaceutical companies.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network


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