When you hear about irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), you may assume them to be the same digestive issue. However, there are distinct differences between the two.
Both share some similar symptoms, but it is important to be able to distinguish them when talking to your doctor about any digestive issues you may be experiencing.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
IBS is very common and patients typically have upper or lower digestive tract symptoms. Those with IBS may experience abdominal pain, unusual cramping, bloating, belching, gas, constipation and diarrhea. Associated symptoms include sexual dysfunction and changes in consistency of stools. Many symptoms are relieved by having a bowel movement and do not occur during sleep.
Diagnosis requires additional investigations by a gastroenterologist to rule out other conditions that may mimic symptoms of IBS. Typical tests include stool studies and blood tests. Some patients may need upper or lower endoscopies as well. Symptoms such as rectal bleeding, weight loss or persistent pain that won’t subside may indicate a more serious issue, and you should notify your doctor as soon as possible if you experience these symptoms.
IBS is not life threatening but can severely affect quality of life. Treatment options typically include a combination of diet/lifestyle changes and medications that control bowel habits as well as pain perception pathways between the brain and the gut.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Unlike IBS, IBD causes damage (ulcers or lesions) in the tissue of the digestive tract. These symptoms can present anywhere along the GI tract. Additionally, many patients develop extra-intestinal symptoms such as joint pain, changes in vision, fatigue, skin rash and others.
Two traditional presentations of IBD include ulcerative colitis (involving only the colon or large intestine) or Crohn’s disease (involving any part of the digestive system from mouth to anus). Depending on the stage of disease and extent of involvement, it can be difficult to differentiate between the two. Tissue samples obtained during an endoscopy and additional imaging studies (CT scan or MRI) can help with the diagnosis in such cases.
IBD also shares some similar symptoms to IBS, including abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea and bowel movement urgency. The main difference is that IBD has more severe symptoms than IBS and treatment may include long-term medication therapy or surgery. There is no cure for IBD, but there are ways to minimize pain and control progression of symptoms through medication and lifestyle changes. Many patients live a normal, productive life with medication therapy but some may require surgery, including removing parts of the small intestine or the colon. It is important to identify symptoms early to prevent long-term complications such as anemia, malnutrition, bowel obstruction and increased colon cancer risk.
If you experience any of the symptoms associated with IBS or IBD, you should visit a gastroenterologist to get it checked out.
About the Author
Dr. Vishwas Vanar is a gastroenterology and hepatology specialist at UCF Health. He has a special interest in acid reflux, IBD and chronic liver disease. He utilizes innovative endoscopic procedures throughout the GI tract to diagnose and treat patients.