Stress and visceral perception
Functional bowel disorders are characterized by the presence of a visceral hyperalgesia in most patients. This visceral hyperalgesia is related to an enhanced perception of sensations originating from the gut. Stressful events can dramatically influence the course of functional bowel disorders, and patients suffering from these syndromes appear to be more susceptible to the stressful events of daily life. However, until now, few studies have evaluated the relationship between stress and visceral perception. Some studies of healthy volunteers indicated contradictory results, but the studies used different methodologies. During stress conditions, either physical or mental, thresholds of perception of rectal distension were increased, suggesting a 'distraction effect', or were decreased, supporting a sensitizing effect of stress. In most studies, rectal compliance was not affected, but stress has been shown to alter the rectal tone, as measured by a barostat. One study comparing irritable bowel syndrome patients with controls demonstrated the importance of cognitive processes in the modulation of visceral perception by stress. Animal studies have also demonstrated the sensitizing effect of stress on the perception of rectal distension. Mediators involved may be numerous, but corticotropin-releasing factor has been demonstrated to play a major role at the central level. Mast cells and histamine release may play a role at the peripheral level. Stress can thus be included in an integrative model explaining the pathophysiology of functional bowel disorders. Advances in the understanding of the relationship between stress and visceral perception may constitute a basis for a therapeutic approach of functional bowel disorders targeted on the central nervous system.