Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a functional gastrointestinal disorder involving abdominal pain and bowel dysfunction. IBS pain symptoms have been hypothesized to depend on peripheral and central mechanisms, but the pathophysiology is still unclear. The aim of the present study was to assess the contribution of cerebral and cerebrospinal processes to pain inhibition deficits in IBS. Fourteen female patients with diarrhea-predominant IBS (IBS-D) and 14 healthy female volunteers were recruited. Acute pain and the nociceptive withdrawal reflex (RIII reflex) were evoked by transcutaneous electrical stimulation of the right sural nerve with modulation by hetero-segmental counter-irritation produced by sustained cold pain applied on the left forearm. Psychological symptoms were assessed by questionnaires. Shock pain decreased significantly during counter-irritation in the controls (P<0.001) but not in IBS patients (P=0.52). Similarly, RIII-reflex amplitude declined during counter-irritation in the controls (P=0.009) but not in IBS patients (P=0.11). Furthermore, pain-related anxiety increased during counter-irritation in IBS patients (P=0.003) but not in the controls (P=0.74). Interestingly, across all subjects, counter-irritation analgesia was positively correlated with RIII-reflex inhibition (r=0.39, P=0.04) and negatively with pain-related anxiety (r=-0.61, P<0.001). In addition, individual differences in counter-irritation analgesia were predicted independently by the modulation of RIII responses (P=0.03) and by pain catastrophizing (P=0.01), with the latter mediating the effect of pain-related anxiety. In conclusion, these results demonstrate that pain inhibition deficits in female IBS-D patients depend on two potentially separable mechanisms reflecting: (1) altered descending modulation and (2) higher-order brain processes underlying regulation of pain and affect.
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