Psychological therapy is better at alleviating irritable bowl syndrome (IBS) symptoms than drugs, a study has found.
The common gut condition affects up to 20% of people and triggers abdominal pain, bloating and distressing altered bowel habits.
While the causes of the disorder are unknown, standard treatments include antispasmodic drugs, laxatives and medicines that relieve diarrhoea.
The new trial results suggest that the condition is at least partly psychological.
Doctors studied 558 serious IBS sufferers who were either put on a programme of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or received standard care.
The findings, reported in the journal Gut, showed that patients in the CBT group were more likely to have experienced significant improvement in their symptoms after a year.
The impact of IBS on their work and daily life was also significantly less than it was for those not receiving the psychological therapy.
CBT is a talking treatment that aims to help people overcome harmful behaviour and ways of thinking.
For the study, sessions were conducted over the phone or online rather than in person.
Lead researcher Dr Hazel Everitt, from the University of Southampton, said: “The fact that both telephone and web based CBT sessions were shown to be effective treatments is a really important and exciting discovery.
“Patients are able to undertake these treatments at a time convenient to them, without having to travel to clinics.’’
The next step is to make CBT more available to people with IBS, said the researchers. The team is currently training a group of NHS therapists.
One patient who took part in the study, Laura Day, said: “There’s no other way of putting it, this trial has changed my life.
“I’d had symptoms for as long as I can remember, but was diagnosed officially around the age of 13. Now, at 31 years old, I barely think about it because I’m symptom-free 98% of the time.”