Lifestyle | Health & Wellness

How To Relieve An IBS Attack

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If you are reading this, we assume you are one of “us” – the 1 in 5 people who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Some of us have diarrhea, some of us have constipation – and some of us get to experience both (jackpot)! Then there is the extreme, painful bloating, gas (wind), abdominal cramping and intestinal spasms that affects so many. What happens when you have an IBS attack and you want quick relief?

A young woman laying on her bed with a hot water bottle upon her stomach. Feature image for How To Relieve an IBS Attack.
There are many ways to try to relieve an IBS attack!

Minimize IBS Pain – FAST!

This article is not about longer-term solutions, like following the low FODMAP diet, or speaking to your gastroenterologist about medications. This article is about what you can do RIGHT NOW to relieve pain from an IBS attack!

We spoke with our RDs and our FODMAP community to get the lowdown on their go-to antidotes for relieving IBS pain; the tried-and-true remedies that have WORKED!

Note that some approaches work for some folks better than others – and, what works one day might not be the solution the next time. Be flexible and try various recommendations.

1. Pause & Breathe

Hopefully by now you are aware that our gut and brain have a very strong connection. You can read a more in-depth explanation of the gut-brain axis is our article, What Is IBS? The fact (and a simplistic explanation) is that what is happening in our gut can affect our brain, and vice versa. Stress can greatly exacerbate our IBS symptoms. 

While we highly recommend looking into a program like Nerva, which is clinically proven gut-directed hypnotherapy, and other stress relieving activities like yoga and Pilates, you can simply pause and breathe, anytime, anywhere.

Stop whatever you are doing and find a quiet spot. Get into a comfortable position – sitting or lying down – close your eyes and start to take slow, deep in-breaths through your nose. Think about taking the air in slowly, visualize it filling your lungs and belly with healing, calm energy, and slowly let the breath out through your mouth or nose. Repeat several times and pay attention to your body sensations changing. Even if you do not think they are, envision that they are. Think about your gut pain going away; the positive thoughts can help it along!

Marti Beck from our Low FODMAP for FOODIES Facebook Group says, “I typically turn to yoga. The stretching, contemplative activity I find soothing, as well as putting myself in touch with, and feeling positive about, my body when it needs love the most.”

2. Heat

Heat, of some sort, was the overwhelmingly reported as the most popular approach to lessening IBS pain. Heat in the form of a hot water bottle or electric heating pad can be very soothing. Placed over the sore area – stomach or intestine – it can help with the pain and cramping due to bloating or intestinal spasms. Always monitor the temperature for safety, especially with a heating pad. This one has an auto shut-off.

Heat is a favorite go-to for alleviating IBS pain.

If you have frequent intestinal spasms, and heat application does not offer enough relief, ask your GI about antispasmodic medications. They can be a lifesaver. I used to have to carry them around but have not had to since starting the low FODMAP diet.

Tina Grace from our FOODIES Group very helpfully suggested getting the disposable ThermaCare HeatWraps. Brilliant idea!

3. Getting Horizontal

If you experience extreme bloating induced pain, simply getting horizontal can really help. The gas that creates the bloating is also creating internal pressure and lying down can sometimes alleviate the downward pressure that is causing the pain.

How you lay down can make a difference. Some folks find a soft surface best, while others want a firm surface. Try lying on your back, left side, right side or even your stomach! Jennifer Marriott from our FOODIES Facebook Group said, as improbable as it sounds, lying directly on her front is what does the trick for her.

Danielle Constantineau from the same group says deep breathing meditations while lying on her stomach with a hard pillow/rolled towel directly underneath the bloat helps her immensely. If you are at work, perhaps go to your car during a break and stretch out in the backseat. 

Note from Dédé: I have been known to fib…way back before spending my days talking about pooping and farting all the time, I was not always comfortable telling the truth. More than once, I was in a social situation (at a friend’s home, in a restaurant bathroom, in a break room at work) where I had to get horizontal to relieve the pressure ASAP. I would tell the other people present that I had a very bad back and needed to lie down. No one ever objected and I got the relief I needed.

Speaking of horizontal, I cannot be at a right angle. If I go to the dentist and the chair is very upright, at a 90° angle, it can trigger intestinal spasm for me. Ditto for certain chairs at dining tables, offices or in cars, and I also cannot sit cross-legged on the floor. I know by now that I have to speak up for myself and be able to situate myself in a gentler position.

Lying down with a hot water bottle or heating pad, or in a hot tub, can be quite soothing, which leads us to the next suggestion.

4. Water

Sinking into a hot (or warm) tub, especially if it is large enough for you to lie down (or mostly lie down), is a helpful tip. There is something about the buoyancy that seems to alleviate gas pressure. Try Epsom salts, if you have them. How about adding aromatherapy to the mix and try lavender scented Epsom salts

For others it is a hot shower that works wonders. Shower cap anyone?

5. Get Moving

Moving is a catch-all word for many things! The idea is that you are in pain, and you don’t want to be. Changing your physical presentation can help. If you are sitting, try lying down. If you are lying down already, try a different position. Side positions (try both sides), and gently curling into a fetal position can feel wonderful to some, while stretching out as long and lengthy as can be (gently stretching) helps others. If you are standing still, try gently walking. 

Young woman in yoga gear in 'child's pose" on a blue yoga mat on a wooden floor looking very serene
Child’s Pose can help relieve some pressure from gas.

Then there are actual yoga positions that can help. Child’s Pose was highly recommended by FODMAP community member Marla Allison. For some of us, with very tender tummies, this position feels best with our legs spread apart a bit to allow our belly to hang down between our thighs. There is a reason it is also called “Wind Relieving Pose”! (Check out our article on farting. We all do it, you know – and it can help alleviate gas pressure!) Cat-cow and downward dog positions work well, too.

A middle aged woman sitting on the floor and stretching forward holding her feet.
You May Want To Read: IBS & Yoga Series: It’s Your Body!

Gentle twists can help. I find that they often help release burping. I like to stand tall and reach my hands above my head, in a cork-screw motion, and twist. Up comes the burp, which relieves pressure.

Mags from our Foodies Group says, “I raise my pelvic area with pillows and with my back on the floor and stay there for a while”. 

Exercise (swimming, cycling, weight lifting, etc.) can sometimes help – and sometimes aggravate. Listen to your body.

We highly suggest trying some sort of change in positioning.

6. Self-Massage

Regular massage – as in getting a massage from someone else – can be a stress reliever, but for many (most?) of us that just isn’t going to happen due to time, access and economics. Learning self-massage specifically geared towards alleviating IBS pain is a good skill to have.

We have a video for you on self-administered abdominal massage guided by Jenny Sprung LMT LCZB. Self-massage can alleviate stress – held both in your mind and body!

7. Eat

Some people actually find relief from eating. Here are some foods that have been known to help IBS sufferers in our community:

  • Saltines (yes, there is a low FODMAP serving – 14 g or 5 crackers)
  • White rice; some folks say leftover and reheated is best
  • Something high fiber like warm buckwheat or cream of rice cereal.
  • Eating ginger – try it crystallized!
  • Boiled potatoes
  • Scrambled eggs
  • Dry toast, lightly buttered or with peanut butter
  • Vanilla ice cream – this was suggested by someone who added, “Maybe it was stress/anxiety related & not an IBS flair, but was always a help”.
  • Jakemans Throat & Chest Lozenges got a thumbs up vote as something soothing to suck

8. Don’t Eat

For others, not eating is the way to go. For me a hot bath, not eating and a good night’s sleep was my approach. Figure out what combo of techniques works for you.

9. Drink

Several folks like a hot beverage and while that involves “making” something, it isn’t too labor intensive. A few slices of ginger steeped in boiling water can do the trick. If you have the ingredients on hand, try our Low FODMAP Lemon Honey Ginger Tea. Peppermint or Rooibos tea work well for some. Others mentioned decaf coffee and simple hot lemon water.

Side view of a woman holding a cup of hot tea in two hands.
Make yourself a cup of peppermint tea.

For others, an alcoholic cocktail offers relief. Some folks specified that hard alcohol helped, while wine exacerbated physical symptoms.

Please note that coffee (decaf or not) and alcohol can be a gut irritant, but in some cases they appear to soothe. Use your best judgement and listen to your body.

Community members also mentioned drinking “lots” of water (one person recommended with a bit of baking soda), or broth/stock to sip. Coca-Cola and ginger-ale were specified as well (you can find some without high fructose corn syrup, btw).

Drops of bitters in water were also mentioned.

And then, of course, for others, liquid was the last thing they wanted.

10. Pressure

Are you aware of the weighted blanket trend? Also referred to as “gravity” blankets, these are blankets with heft. Many folks find it comforting to have some gentle weight on them.

Bhu Mika from our FOODIES Group says a 15-to-20-pound blanket works for her. Try gentle pressure on your abdomen – even with just a firm pillow. We find that the classic hot water bottle (this one has a nice cover) provides heat and weight.

11. Try Something New – But Be Prudent

Some of these ideas might work for you, and some might not, but they have all worked for an IBS sufferer at one point and so we thought they should be included. Try something new but use your smarts. If you are prone to feeling bloated and “sloshy” inside, then drinking a lot of water is probably not going to be the right choice. If you are very sensitive to wheat, a piece of traditional dry toast or Saltines is not for you.

12. Time

We know you want relief NOW, but it is very helpful to remember that IBS is considered a “functional” gastrointestinal disorder (FGID). This basically means that it is not deadly, and also, while there is no “cure”, time will alleviate symptoms. For me, a hot bath and a good night’s sleep was a panacea. (BTW did you know we have an article on the Timing of Digestive Symptoms? Check it out).

13. Sleep

Speaking of time, a time-out can help. This can take the form of a nap, or a good night’s sleep. Many folks reported that morning was often their best time, while symptoms could often progress as the day went on. But there is no need to wait till your bedtime, if you need a break.

Make sure you have what you need to sleep well: a good mattress, a pillow that suits your sleeping style, black-out curtains, a white noise machine, a comfortable sleep mask (Dédé swears by this one). Maybe take a hot water bottle to bed, too. Or that weighted blanketOr cuddle with your pet.

Gallows Humor

We wanted to mention that one person mentioned creating pain somewhere else in her body – the idea being that it would detract from the IBS pain. She was kidding, but the gallows humor is to be noted. For those of us who have experienced excruciating IBS pain, the idea of being able to somehow move away from it is enticing. So, don’t hurt yourself, but do know that you are not alone in your pain and frustration.

Miscellaneous Ideas

Here are some more ideas brought to us from our RDs and our FODMAP community – from folks like you!

  • Hug a pillow – Marian Pincus Warshauer from our Foodies Group keeps a pillow in the bathroom to hug. Great self-care!
  • Hug a person!
  • Hug a pet
birds eye view of a young girl snuggling with her golden retriever on a grey couch.
Snuggling with your pets can help alleviate stress, and therefore your gut pain.
  • Make yourself fart
  • Essential oils rubbed on belly
  • Distraction – of any kind (movies, TV, conversation, cooking or baking)
  • Being very still and quiet
  • Sing! 
  • Dance
  • Laugh
  • Be tickled
  • Smile
  • Journaling – make it special. Buy a nice blank book (or coloring book!)
  • CBD and cannabis – where legal, both external and internal (check out our CBD article)

The Takeaway

There are myriad ways to relieve your IBS pain NOW. Breathe, eat, don’t eat, drink, move, sleep, bathe, massage, distract…and a host of others. Remember that not every technique works for every person – or every time – but keep this article for reference and try something new when you need it. We think everyone should go get some of those ThermaCare HeatWraps to keep on hand. Heat in some form was the number one response in our polls. Try it if you haven’t!

For long term approaches, work with a Monash University trained dietitian and consult your gastroenterologist for medications, if necessary. We also highly recommend gut-directed hypnotherapy and there is no easier way than Nerva.

Remember you are not alone – and you CAN find relief.

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