Kids with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) deal with pain that keeps them from feeling and acting like kids. Now, a tiny device that fits behind the ear can alleviate IBS pain when nothing else works. Levine Children’s is the only hospital in Charlotte that offers this innovative tool, and it’s giving kids their childhoods back.

Child Health | 4 months ago

A New (and Surprising) Tool to Help Kids with IBS

A tiny device that fits behind the ear offers big pain relief to kids and teenagers with IBS.

A tiny device that fits behind the ear offers big pain relief to kids and teenagers with IBS.Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) pain can be strong enough to keep kids from feeling like kids. But a surprising new treatment has become a life-changer. A tiny device, worn snugly behind an ear for a six-week period, can ease the pain of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in children and teenagers – even after the device comes off.

Caleb Smith, 14, dealt with the pain of IBS for four years. He hurt too much to ride his bike or join friends in gym class. He usually had to leave school after just half a day.

“He went from being a child that was active and wanted to be outside doing things to becoming a child who got through his half day of school and then just collapsed,” his mom Gina says. His parents went to several doctors and tried treatments without success. Then they met with Daniel “Rory” Kelly, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Atrium Health Levine Children’s, who told Caleb’s parents about the little device with promising results.

“Really, this thing is so tiny. It seems so unusual! It goes behind the ear, so it’s nowhere near the gut,” Gina says. “But it’s made such a difference.”

After three weeks of wearing the IB-Stim device behind his ear, Caleb’s pain decreased significantly. The device is worn for five days each week, with a two-day break before the device goes on for the next week. Even several months after his six-week treatment with the device ended, Caleb still feels better. He’s back to riding his bike, playing and enjoying full days.

“I can be a lot more active without collapsing afterwards, which is quite nice,” Caleb says.

“This, to us, is like a miracle,” his mom says.

Easing the Pain of IBS in Children

IBS affects about a fifth of people around the world, resulting in abdominal pain, nausea, constipation and diarrhea. Symptoms can be severe enough to disrupt routines and keep people from work and school. Although it affects children, too, no FDA-approved treatments have existed for adolescent IBS until now.

This device, which is approved for children with IBS aged 11 to 18, shows great promise. In a study, 81% of children showed meaningful pain reduction after using this device for four weeks. Only about 20 hospitals around the country offer this device, and Levine Children’s is the only one in the Charlotte region that has it.

This device doesn’t cure IBS, but it alleviates the pain associated with it. For children who haven’t found relief from other treatments – including medication, diet changes and therapy – they’ve found great relief with this.

“It’s a really novel, interesting device. It's characterized as a percutaneous electrical nerve field stimulator,” Dr. Kelly says. “When we stimulate the cranial nerves around the ears, it sends a signal to the areas where pain is processed. It basically distracts the brain from processing pain sensations.”

In people with IBS, the amygdala – a collection of cells near the base of the brain -- is often a hotbed of activity. It’s the region of the brain that processes pain, as well as the stress and fear that come with pain. In studies of this device, activity in the amygdala decreases by 65% within 15 minutes of this device being turned on. It shows how drastically and how quickly this can manage pain and stress. Studies have shown that pain relief can continue for 12 weeks, but Dr. Kelly’s seen anecdotal evidence of that relief continuing months longer than that. Treatment can continue if the pain returns.

“Patients are able to go to school, able to do their work, able to exercise. They can sleep better,” Dr. Kelly says. “If you’ve got chronic pain and nausea and you can’t sleep well or exercise, it’s going to cycle down and make everything worse. But now these patients can do these things and keep their bodies going, which is fantastic.”

Giving Kids with IBS Their Childhoods Back

Levine Children’s began using the device as soon as the FDA approved it in July 2019. Since then, about 200 devices have been used, and Dr. Kelly expects that even more will choose it next year. He says that as more parents share their stories of children who have finally found relief from IBS, more parents want to try it for their children, too. Patients now drive to Levine Children’s from all over the Carolinas and Virginia to get their children this device.

“This device will not take away IBS. That's going to be there,” Dr. Kelly says. “But if it allows these patients to improve so they can work on managing their IBS, that's what's going to get them better and make them a successful adult.”

Cutting-edge treatments are part of the comprehensive care offered at Levine Children’s pediatric gastroenterology program. This program, honored by U.S. News & World Report as among the country’s best, also offers other specialists – like clinical nutritionists, dedicated psychologist and social workers – to care for children dealing with IBS and other disorders.

Caleb’s parents remain amazed that his sustained pain reduction has lasted months after his six-week treatment with the device.

“It used to be that Caleb having a day when he felt good was something to celebrate because we didn't see it a whole lot,” his dad Harold says. But now, good days have become Caleb’s new normal. It’s a welcome development for a kid who, once again, gets to feel like a kid again.

To learn more about pediatric gastroenterology at Levine Children’s and whether this device may help your child, call us at 704-381-6850.