March 15, 2021

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): What’s the Difference?

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are both irritating conditions related to the digestive system. The symptoms of IBD and IBS are so similar it’s often hard to differentiate the two, but the unique treatments and diagnostic processes for each make accurate diagnosis imperative.

Hackensack Meridian Mountainside Medical Group’s board-certified gastroenterologists, Rosemarie Arena, M.D., and S. Charles Oh, M.D., shed some light on IBD, IBS and the difference between the two.

“IBD is diagnosed when there is abnormal inflammation in the colon or the large intestine,” said Dr. Arena. “Symptoms include digestive issues, diarrhea, abdominal pain and blood in the stool. Certain foods can aggravate IBD and appetite can be affected, causing weight loss.”

IBD is classified as a disease, whereas IBS is classified as a syndrome. Individuals with IBD suffer from chronic inflammation of the digestive tract in the form of ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease. IBD is considered the more serious diagnosis and it may increase your risk of colon cancer.

IBS is a common disorder, affecting between 25 and 45 million people in the United States, that causes a variety of intestinal symptoms. Research has not been conclusive on the exact cause of IBS, but experts believe it has something to do with how the gut and brain communicate. It’s also unclear why IBS is more prevalent in females.

Although there are many unknowns associated with the IBS, it’s clear symptoms can be debilitating and affect daily tasks.

“Some people have a type of IBS that mainly causes diarrhea, but for others, constipation is the primary symptom,” said Dr. Oh. “Still, others experience both diarrhea and constipation. All individuals with IBS may have stomach pain, bloating, fullness and other symptoms. IBS can affect patients’ abilities to work and enjoy their favorite activities, like spending time with friends.”

One of the initial differences between IBD and IBS is the method by which each is diagnosed.

“The most common way IBD is diagnosed is through a colonoscopy,” said Dr. Arena. “Abnormal inflammation is verified, and a biopsy is taken and sent to a pathologist to confirm.”

IBS is typically based on your symptoms and the elimination of other causes. No visual examination or blood test will expose signs of IBS or confirm a diagnosis.

Keeping a detailed log of your symptoms may help your doctor develop an appropriate plan for diagnosis.

“It is sometimes hard to know the difference because there is overlap in the symptoms,” said Dr. Arena. “The main difference is with IBS, once a colonoscopy is completed, everything will still look normal. IBS has no specific test and is more about ruling other things out as we go.”

Currently, there’s no cure for either condition, but various treatment options are available to manage symptoms. IBD treatments include anti-inflammatory drugs, antibiotics, biologics, dietary adjustments, immune system suppressors, pain relievers, supplements and surgery. Many IBS treatments are offered over-the-counter, but there are also medications specifically for IBS that your doctor can prescribe. Because of the interaction between the gut and the brain, it’s also believed managing stress may be a key factor in alleviating IBS symptoms. A mental health professional may be able to help you identify stressors and find ways to avoid or minimize them. Exercising or practicing relaxation therapy are common suggestions for individuals looking to reduce stress, and may help to alleviate symptoms of IBS.

“Right now, there is no cure for IBD, but treatment is available in the form of oral pills, IV infusions or injections,” said Dr. Arena. “With the proper medications patients are usually able to go into remission and have fewer symptoms or none at all.”

If you experience symptoms of IBD or IBS, speak up about your symptoms. Talk with a Mountainside Medical Group provider about your symptoms, and treatments appropriate for you. Schedule your appointment to find a doctor visit or call 866-999-5162.

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