Understanding the Difference Between IBS and IBD

Daniel Marcus';

By Daniel Marcus

Posted on January 18th, 2021 in News, Myths & Tips

Despite sounding the same, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) are very different gastrointestinal tract conditions.

These two digestive conditions are often mistaken for one another or referred to interchangeably, but they are actually distinctively different in their characteristics and treatment.

It is essential to know the differences between these two conditions because the therapeutic approaches for each are very different, requiring:

  • Diets for IBS 
  • Using immune therapy or surgery for IBD.

What Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common, long-term condition that affects the digestive system. Its primary symptoms are:

  • abdominal pain or discomfort
  • excess gas
  • bloating and distension
  • bowel habits (e.g., constipation and/or diarrhea)

Up to 15% of adults have irritable bowel syndrome; that's over 45 million people in the U.S. alone. The syndrome can affect men and women of all ages, but it is more frequently noticed in younger women.

The precise cause of IBS is currently unknown. It is thought to result from a combination of abnormal gastrointestinal tract movements, increased awareness of bodily functions, and possible factors like genetics and prior adverse life experiences (e.g., infection, trauma).

What Is Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)?

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is a chronic inflammation of the intestines that can disrupt your body’s ability to digest food, absorb nutrition and healthily eliminate waste. The two main types of IBD are Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, both of which have similar symptoms.

IBD can cause extreme fatigue and anemia, and some dangerous complications, especially if you don’t get the right treatment. In addition to intestinal inflammation, severe diarrhea can cause dehydration, which means your body may be depleted of fluids, nutrients, and necessary electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, and zinc.

As many as 1.6 million Americans have ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, with 70,000 new cases diagnosed each year. The cause of the disease is an interaction between genetic, immune system, and environmental factors.

IBS vs. IBD: What Are the Differences?

While both conditions can cause similar symptoms, such as diarrhea and severe abdominal pain, a few key differences are important to recognize when getting diagnosed and treated.

Here's a rundown of the significant differences between the two:

  • IBD involves much more than the gut and can lead to several serious complications in the intestines;
  • IBS doesn’t cause severe damage to the GI tract, nor does it increase the risk for bowel cancer, unlike IBD;
  • Dietary changes, such as avoiding carbonated drinks, nuts, and other high-fiber foods, drinking more liquids, eating smaller meals more often, can be helpful for both conditions, but this is rarely enough for IBD;
  • IBD patients may experience shorter symptom-free periods than someone with IBS;
  • The intestinal complications of IBD are caused by intestinal inflammation that is more severe and takes longer to abate when someone is going through a flare-up;
  • Inflammation caused by IBD can be seen on ultrasounds and imaging tests such as X-rays, CT scans, and MRI scans;
  • IBS cannot be seen on an ultrasound, CT scan, MRI, or colonoscopy. Thus, the condition can be diagnosed based purely on the symptoms. Blood tests can help your doctor to rule out other conditions;
  • Treatments for IBD include medications to reduce inflammation and immunosuppressant drugs, many of which can have serious side effects and should not be used to treat IBS.
  • Both IBS and IBD can cause abdominal pain and cramping, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting;
  • Psychological stress is also known to exacerbate the symptoms of both IBD and IBS, so either condition can benefit from practicing stress-relief techniques;
  • Dietary changes may help both IBD and IBS patients, though IBD patients will not be enough to prevent the damage, and other treatments will be needed.

Though Distinct in Terms of Pathology and Therapeutic Approach, IBS and IBD Have Some Similarities

  • both IBS and IBD can cause abdominal pain and cramping, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting;
  • psychological stress is also known to exacerbate the symptoms of both IBD and IBS, so either condition can benefit from practicing stress-relief techniques;
  • dietary changes may help both IBD and IBS patients, though for IBD patients will not be enough to prevent the damage, and other treatments will be needed.

If You Believe You May Have IBS or IBD, Make an Appointment With Our Gastroenterology Specialists

Anyone with IBD symptoms or IBS should see their primary care provider, and possibly a gastroenterologist gets help and makes sure no other serious disease, such as colon cancer, is present. Whether your symptoms are recent or you have been suffering for a long time, our specialists are available to help diagnose and treat your digestive disorder.

Our specialists may discuss your family, personal, and medical history. They may also order testing. Depending on your case, treatment may involve medication to reduce the symptoms, achieve and maintain remission, or even surgery. No matter what you’re going through, we will work to get to the root of your problem and put you on the path to health.