Irritable bowel syndrome is allegedly the most common gastrointestinal diagnosis in the United States. The etiology of this syndrome appears to entail the interaction of both genes and the environment. One potential environmental contributory factor to irritable bowel syndrome is abuse in childhood. Of the various forms of abuses previously examined, sexual abuse in childhood appears to be the most patent contributor. However, both emotional and physical abuses may also contribute to irritable bowel syndrome, although less distinctly. Studies examining a combined childhood-abuse variable (i.e., sexual, emotional, and/or physical abuses) in relationship to irritable bowel syndrome also indicate inconsistent results. Given the presence of childhood abuse as a potential factor in the development of irritable bowel syndrome, a number of pathophysiological events are postulated to explain this relationship, including alterations in norepinephrine and serotonin levels as well as dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Only future research will clarify the specific abuse elements (i.e., further clarification of the individual types of abuse, duration of abuse, roles of the perpetrator/victim) and the pathophysiological changes that culminate in irritable bowel syndrome.
Keywords: Abuse; childhood abuse; emotional abuse; gastrointestinal; irritable bowel syndrome; physical abuse; sexual abuse.