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Women's clinic targets digestive disorders

By Julie Deardorff

Gut check for women

When the prescription drug Zelnorm was recalled earlier this year for safety concerns, the phones began ringing at Digestique, a Chicago clinic for women with chronic digestive illnesses.

The worried callers all had the same question: "What now?"

Conventional medical treatments have famously flopped when it comes to treating the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, which has no exact known cause and can include abdominal pain and bloating, gas and rushed trips to the bathroom.

But at specialty medical practices such as the woman-only Digestique, an integrated approach that could include diet and exercise, probiotics, medications that impact serotonin receptors in the bowel, colonic hydrotherapy (colonics), biofeedback and physical therapists offers such much-needed alternatives.

"Twenty years ago we were so focused on the surgical aspect, and we just saw people at the end of the line," said Digestique medical director Steve Stryker, a professor of clinical surgery at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. "The trend in this century is prevention, so we don't get to the point where we need to remove the entire colon."

Stryker opened the clinic a year ago after seeing increasing numbers of women with non-surgical digestive complaints who said they couldn't fine find help anywhere else. That, combined with newer treatment approaches, such as colonic transit studies or X-rays that determine how long it takes for food to travel through the intestines, persuaded him to seek out and provide less traditional solutions.

Once considered a disease caused by stress, IBS affects 10 percent to 15 percent of adults in Western countries, and 80 percent of them are women, suggesting that hormones play a role. No single cause can adequately explain the symptoms, but it probably stems from a handful of mechanisms, including food allergies or sensitivity, bacterial overgrowth and problems with serotonin receptors, Stryker said.

IBS also is thought to be linked to poor coordination of muscle contraction, which is why Digestique patients might work with a physical therapist at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago on retraining pelvic-floor muscles during defecation.

"Strong pelvic-floor muscles make everything work better, including the bowel," said Cynthia Neville, director of women's health rehabilitation at the institute. "We also have patients fill out a bowel diary, analyze their fluid and food intake, make general dietary recommendations or refer to a nutritionist."

Nutrition, in fact, is the first treatment approach at Digestique, once medical conditions needing treatment have been ruled out, such as a mineral or electrolyte imbalance.

Patients are told to incorporate 35 grams of fiber into the diet and to as well as exercise. If that doesn't change symptoms, patients might undergo a colonic transit study to check for a condition called slow-transit constipation, which frequently follows a traumatic event, such as a hysterectomy or a car accident.

Even colonic hydrotherapy, or flushing water through the colon - something Stryker says still has a bad reputation among traditional physicians - might be an option.

"Part of the problem is a lot of unusual claims are made for [colonics], such as to lose weight or help skin," Stryker said. "We're big fans of colonic hydrotherapy, but we use it for bowel disorders,; for patients whose constipation is so severe the alternative is the removal of the colon."

Digestique is at 676 North St. Clair, Suite 1525A, Chicago, IL 60611; phone 312-274-9898.

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676 North St. Clair
Suite 1525,
Chicago, IL 60611
Fax 312-695-2275

Monday - Friday
9am - 5pm