IBS and IBD are often confused. Sure, they may sound similar (at least their acronyms are close) but they are actually completely different conditions. IBD stands for inflammatory bowel disease, while IBS is the acronym for irritable bowel syndrome.
Both IBS and IBD affect the digestive system and there is some cross over of symptoms (see this chart for more info), but treatment options and the experience of patients tend to differ. In fact, it’s possible to have both IBD and IBS at the same time. Think of it like having a cold and tonsillitis simultaneously – different causes, different treatments but some crossover of symptoms.
IBS is a syndrome – a collection of symptoms understood as a functional disorder. This means that while the digestive system may look fine physically, it does not work as it should. People with IBS can experience similar symptoms to people with IBD such as pain, bloating, gas and diarrhoea. The main difference is that IBS does not cause physical damage to the bowel or intestinal tract, while IBD does. There is no known cause of IBS and no specific test to confirm an IBS diagnosis.
IBD generally refers to two diseases: ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Both Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis (UC) affect the digestive tract, causing inflammation and internal damage. People suffering from IBD often share the IBS symptoms of bloating, cramps, gas, diarrhoea and constipation. In addition, IBD patients may suffer rectal bleeding, ulcers, dramatic weight loss and fever. The presence of these ‘red flag’ symptoms rules out IBS as a diagnosis, pointing instead to a form of IBD.
Because IBD is inflammatory (as the name suggests), it causes internal damage to the gastrointestinal system. This causes the bowel and intestinal tract to become swollen and red. This damage is visible to doctors during diagnostic tests such as colonoscopies, endoscopies and sigmoidoscopies. These tests involve inserting a camera into sections of the digestive tract to search for the signs of inflammation that can confirm an IBD diagnosis.
The nature of IBS as a syndrome doesn’t mean that sufferers are ‘faking it’, nor are they hypochondriacs. Syndromes are very real and people living with IBS suffer pain, discomfort and stress, but these symptoms do not indicate an underlying disease. With changes to diet and lifestyle, as well as managing stress levels, IBS sufferers can often control their condition. Medications are sometimes prescribed to help patients manage symptoms like diarrhoea or constipation.
IBD tends to be a more debilitating and serious condition. As with IBS, IBD management also frequently involves changes in lifestyle, diet and stress management. Getting Crohn’s and colitis under control also frequently involves more intensive medication regimes including anti-inflammatories and corticosteroids. In some serious IBD cases surgery is required to remove or repair parts of the digestive system that are severely damaged or inflamed.
If you experience chronic issues with your stomach, bowel movements or digestion, it’s best to speak to your doctor. With their help you can seek a diagnosis and treatment program to help identify and manage your condition.