Healthy Living

IBD and IBS: What’s the Difference?

IBD and IBS: What’s the Difference?

When discussing different medical conditions, it’s easy to get caught up in all of the terminology. Multisyllabic words and acronyms seem to cover the pages of researchers’ reports on various medical conditions, and this can sometimes make it difficult to understand what is really being communicated. Usually, it’s easy enough to grasp a basic understanding of the causes and symptoms of a disease, at least from a high level. Upon looking more closely, however, it becomes more difficult to understand the nuances specific to individual conditions. This is especially true when it comes to diseases that are relatively similar.

Irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease are examples of two medical conditions that are similar, but have some major differences.

In order to help you understand these conditions better, we’ve broken down brief definitions of each, and then created an analysis of the key features that distinguish the two.

What is IBS?

Irritable bowel syndrome or IBS for short is a chronic condition that affects the large intestine. There is a fairly wide range of symptoms that can be associated with IBS including cramping, stomach pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation. IBS is not usually a severe condition; in fact, many individuals are able to keep their symptoms under control by maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle. In some cases, the symptoms become more severe and do require medical intervention through medication.

Patients with IBS are not at an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer.

The cause of IBS isn’t completely known. Doctors do know that muscle strain, inflammation in the intestines, the nervous system, bacterial changes, and infections can all be contributing factors. For patients who already have IBS, eating certain types of food, changing hormone levels, and exposure to high stress are the three most common factors that would cause a flare-up. IBS is more common in young people, especially people under 50, and more common in women than in men.
Because IBS doesn’t have a known cause, it’s actually classified as a functional disorder and not as a disease.

What is IBD?

Inflammatory bowel disease or IBD shares many of the same symptoms as IBS, but it’s ultimately a very different condition. Broadly speaking, IBD refers to disorders that cause chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. Patients suffering from IBD will typically have symptoms that range from being mild to severe. Symptoms may include diarrhea, fever, fatigue, stomach pain, cramping, blood in stool, change in appetite, and unintentional and potentially unhealthy weight loss. Because IBD is chronic and because the symptoms can frequently flare up and become somewhat severe, patients with IBD usually need to make alterations to their lifestyles in order to cope with the condition. At times, symptoms can become debilitating, while at other times, symptoms may be milder but may require certain accommodations such as easy access to a restroom.

Like IBS, the exact cause of IBD is currently unknown at this point. While a patient’s diet and stress level will certainly contribute to the severity of symptoms, researchers no longer believe that these factors actually cause the condition.
IBD is typically diagnosed in people who are younger, usually under 30, and it’s hereditary, so if a close relative is diagnosed, then you’re more likely to be diagnosed as well. IBD has the potential to become a debilitating and even life-threatening condition. Because of the persistent inflammation associated with the disease, patients are more susceptible to developing colon cancer, blood clots, and inflammation or scarring in other parts of the body. While all of these factors are true about IBD on a broad level, IBD can be further classified into two different conditions.

The differences between Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis

Patients who have IBD will be further diagnosed with either Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Crohn’s disease is a chronic, inflammatory condition that affects the gastrointestinal tract. While Crohn’s can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract, it’s most commonly found where the small intestine connects to the large intestine. Due to the persistent inflammation associated with Crohn’s, it can also affect the eyes, skin, and joints. There isn’t a known cure for Crohn’s at this point, but the disease is treatable.

In most cases, patients adhere to an ongoing medical regime that usually includes medication. In some more severe cases, surgery may be necessary. Reports indicate that for patients in ongoing treatment for Crohn’s disease, a little over half will continue to experience flare-ups of the condition throughout their life.

Like Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis is also a chronic, inflammatory condition, but it only affects the large intestine, which includes the colon and the rectum. The symptoms are similar to Crohn’s disease and include diarrhea and stomach pain. Ulcerative colitis can also be treated through a consistent medical regime that usually involves medication, but may involve surgery in severe cases. In contrast to Crohn’s disease, only about a third of patients in treatment for ulcerative colitis are likely to experience a flare-up of their symptoms.

There are many similarities between Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, and that’s why they’re both grouped under the IBD umbrella. Both are serious conditions that can have long-term effects and cause lasting harm if they go untreated. While the cause and cure for the diseases are unknown, both are treatable so long as patients adhere to a proper medical treatment plan and pay close attention to dietary triggers. In both cases, patients are likely to be diagnosed before they’re 30, and the diseases affect men and women equally.

Key differences between IBD and IBS

So, that’s a lot of information about IBS and IBD, and it’s information that’s important to be aware of, especially if you’re trying to determine whether you are suffering from one of the two conditions or not. At the early stages, it can be difficult to distinguish between the two conditions. Both IBS and IBD can cause diarrhea, stomach pain, and cramping. While these symptoms will persist with either condition, IBD will usually worsen over time whereas IBS is more likely to remain less severe.

With IBD patients may also begin to experience fatigue and fever. IBD can also cause rectal bleeding, which is a symptom not associated with IBS. In either case, stress and diet can be contributing factors to worsened symptoms, and in both conditions, treatment typically involves oversight by a physician and regular medication.

The primary difference between the two conditions is the severity of symptoms. While both cause abdominal discomfort, IBS is likely to remain somewhat consistent throughout treatment. IBS also does not cause lasting damage because it does not generate persistent inflammation; it is not an inflammatory disorder. In contrast, IBD will likely worsen over time. Because the intestines are constantly inflamed, they will weaken which leaves patients susceptible to more severe complications such as colon cancer. If you’re experiencing some of the symptoms associated with both IBS and IBD, it’s important to consult a physician and get a correct diagnosis so that you can receive the necessary treatment.

Final thoughts

The medical world is full of all kinds of long words and acronyms that can be difficult to keep straight. Irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease are just two examples of acronyms that may seem similar on the surface, but are actually very different conditions.

While both IBS and IBD affect the stomach and cause pain and discomfort, IBD has the potential to leave patients with more severe symptoms and lasting damage. Regardless of what symptoms you’re experiencing, it’s important to seek medical advice to ensure you receive the proper treatment.