Two common digestive disorders, irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease, have some symptoms in common and people often use the terms interchangeably. IBD and IBS are not one and the same, though: The underlying causes differ, as do the diagnostic processes and treatments.
This guide breaks down the differences between IBD and IBS, from definition to diagnosis to treatment options.
IBD is an umbrella term that covers inflammation-related digestive diseases. The two types of IBD, Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, both involve chronic inflammation and usually involve severe symptoms, including diarrhea, chronic fatigue, weight loss and abdominal pain or cramping.
Crohn's disease occurs when the lining of your digestive tract becomes inflamed. This type of inflammation can often spread to deep layers of body tissue and can cause debilitating pain in severe cases. Crohn's can affect different parts of the digestive tract in different people.
Ulcerative colitis is localized to the colon, or large intestine -- "colitis" means inflammation of the colon. In people with this disease, the lining of the colon becomes inflamed and sores, or ulcers, develop. Like Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis can cause serious abdominal pain.
IBS is actually not classified as a disease, but instead a "functional disorder" or a syndrome, which is defined as a group of symptoms that occur together. Those symptoms are abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, diarrhea or constipation (or both, alternating) and gas.
IBS is considered a chronic symptom that requires lifelong management, although only a small percentage of patients with IBS have severe symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic.
There's some debate -- both in the medical community and throughout the general public -- that IBS isn't real. IBS has been called a psychological disorder in the past, because people with IBS don't show physiological signs of disease when doctors perform exams or take images of their digestive tracts.
Again, although the two acronyms are often confused or used interchangeably, IBD and IBS are two very different conditions -- here's a rundown of the major differences between the two.
IBD vs. IBS: Similarities
Though IBD and IBS have many distinctions, they do share some similarities. Some symptoms overlap, for example: People with IBD and IBS may both experience abdominal pain and cramping, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting. Both conditions can also make people feel like they urgently need to use the restroom, even if they actually don't.
Stress is also known to aggravate the symptoms of both IBD and IBS, so either condition can benefit from practicing stress-reduction techniques. Dietary changes may also help people with IBD and IBS, though specific dietary recommendations differ.
If you have either condition, you should work with your doctor, a gastroenterologist or a registered dietitian who specializes in digestive disorders to find a diet and treatment plan that helps quiet your symptoms.
Diagnosing IBD and IBS
One of the major differences between these two conditions is that IBD shows clinical signs of disease when patients undergo an exam and imaging, while IBS does not show signs of distress in the digestive tract. That's a big part of the reason that IBS is classified as a syndrome and not a disease.
For IBS, on the other hand, there is no specific testing procedure to get a diagnosis. Doctors usually diagnose IBS through a series of questions about your symptoms and take into account your health and medical history. Keep in mind that IBS is somewhat a diagnosis of exclusion, so your doctor may recommend tests or imaging to rule out other, potentially more dangerous, conditions that share symptoms with IBS.
Schedule an appointment with your doctor to discuss your symptoms if you think you have IBD or IBS. The only way to truly find out if you have one of these conditions (or something else) is to undergo a medical exam and imaging tests. Your primary care doctor may refer you to a specialist, such as a gastroenterologist, if your symptoms are severe.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.