The Differences Between the Bowel Conditions IBS and IBD

The Differences Between the Bowel Conditions IBS and IBD

lisa burks
Inflammatory Bowel Disease is commonly misdiagnosed because the symptoms can point toward other conditions. This is why it can take a while to get the correct diagnosis. The most common misdiagnosis for patients with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is a condition called Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Although the disorders share similar names, they couldn’t be more different.

What are IBD and IBS?

Inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, is an inflammatory disease of the intestines. There are two types: ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. These inflammatory diseases weaken the structure of the gastrointestinal tract, or GI. The damage they cause to the intestines can be dangerous.

Ulcerative colitis is a chronic condition that mainly affects the lining of the colon, the area between the large intestine and rectum. The disease, which causes inflammation and sores, usually develops over time.

Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract: the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, rectum and anus. Common symptoms include abdominal pain, cramping, nausea, fevers, fatigue, problems going to the bathroom, loss of appetite, and weight loss or gain. Because of the possible complications, Crohn’s can be dangerous as well.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome stems from the improper functioning of the large intestine or colon. This causes abdominal cramping, especially before a person goes to the bathroom, along with difficulty going to the bathroom and nausea. The condition is not considered dangerous, however.

IBD and IBS couldn’t be more different

IBD and IBS affect the gut, but in different ways. Unlike Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome is not classified as a disease but rather a condition. It does not inflamme or damage the bowels. IBS is a much less serious condition that scientists call a functional disorder. This means the symptoms of IBS are caused by the intestines not working correctly.

The inflammations associated with IBD can spread outside the digestive system. That means the disease can affect the skin, joints and eyes. The conditions — dermatitis in the skin, arthritis in the joints and several eye conditions — can be as debilitating as IBD itself. In contrast, IBS affects only the lower digestive tract.

How the conditions are diagnosed

Doctors use blood tests, endoscopies, biopsies, and scans to help the decide whether a patient has IBD or IBS.

The most useful test is a colonoscopy. That involves a doctor inserting a scope to view the inside appearance of the intestines. If a person has IBD, the intestines will appear inflamed, and perhaps constricted, with hardened walls. This indicates that the person’s problems stem from structural damage to the intestines.

With IBS the intestines appear normal, with no damage or inflammation. IBS stems not from damage but from the intestines not working properly.

A colonoscopy allows a doctor to take biopsies from the intestines, which are crucial to diagnosing IBD or IBS.

Treatments for IBD and IBS

Although the conditions have similar symptoms, the treatments are different. Depending on the severity of an IBD, treatment can include hospitalization, heavy-duty medications, nutritional support and sometimes surgery due to complications.

While IBD has no known cure, proper treatment can reduce symptoms and lead to remission, which means the disease is no longer showing signs of being active.

Changes in diet and lifestyle can help control IBS. The key is avoiding foods that trigger symptoms. If symptoms become too bothersome, medications can be used to treat them.

Although IBD and IBS are different conditions, it is possible to have both at the same time. Even if someone’s IBD is in remission, they can experience abdominal symptoms if IBS is also present. Having both conditions can increase stress and further impair quality of life.

Getting the correct diagnosis

It can be difficult to obtain a proper diagnosis because the symptoms of IBD and IBS are so similar, especially in the conditions’ beginning stages. The proper tests are crucial for an accurate diagnosis. Once you know for sure which condition you have, you can start the right treatment and be on the road to recovery.


Note: IBD News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of IBD News Today, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to IBD.

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