Background: Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is associated with a substantial burden on individual patients, health care systems, and society as a whole.
Objectives: This review article provides an overview of the disease state and discusses treatment options.
Methods: The MEDLINE database was searched for original research and review articles published in English (from 1966 to July 2005) using the medical subject heading irritable bowel syndrome and the following subheadings: diagnosis, economics, pathophysiology, and therapy. Preference was given to articles that focused on new insights regarding pathophysiology and to those that addressed global symptom improvement for IBS.
Results: Symptoms of IBS vary with each patient and disease episode. Although improvement in individual IBS symptoms is desirable, the overall goal in managing patients with IBS is to achieve global symptom improvement. Traditional IBS therapies (ie, psychotherapy/behavioral therapy, bulking agents, antidiarrheals, antispasmodics, and tricyclic antidepressants) have lacked demonstrable efficacy in randomized controlled trials. Recent improvements in the understanding of IBS pathophysiology, particularly regarding the role of neurotransmitters and hormones in gastrointestinal motility, secretion, and visceral perception, have resulted in the development of novel treatments for IBS. In clinical trials, IBS-specific treatments (ie, agents that affect serotonergic pathways) have been associated with significant improvements in global symptoms. However, the added cost of treatment with these agents and the potential risks of serious adverse events (eg, severe constipation, severe diarrhea, ischemic colitis) may preclude their widespread use. Initial cost-effectiveness analyses with the novel IBS-specific agents suggest the benefits may outweigh the added costs. From a managed care perspective, the costs incurred by IBS-specific therapies may be offset by subsequent reductions in health care resource utilization by patients with IBS.
Conclusions: IBS-specific agents offer an opportunity for patients with IBS to achieve global symptom improvement. However, when weighing the costs and potential risks against the potential benefits, clinicians should consider the nature and severity of the patient's symptoms, the degree of functional impairment, and the presence of psychosocial comorbidities.