IBD vs IBS: Different Disorders

Inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome share some similarities but are considerably different

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

Irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease may affect the same organ, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

Irritable bowel syndrome is a condition that causes symptoms like abdominal cramping, but does not lead to any permanent damage of the large intestine (colon).

Inflammatory bowel disease is a much more serious condition in which the the digestive tract becomes inflamed.

While medication is typically required to treat inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome can be successfully managed with specific lifestyle changes.

Understanding Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

IBD is a chronic condition that involves inflammation of all or part of your digestive tract. In people with IBD, the immune system mistakes things like food and bacteria for harmful foreign substances and begins to attack cells of the intestines.

Crohn's disease — a form of IBD — typically causes inflammation in the lower part of the small intestine, although it can affect other organs, including the eyes, skin and liver. Symptoms of Crohn’s disease include persistent diarrhea, cramping abdominal pain, fever and rectal bleeding.

Ulcerative colitis — another form of IBD — affects the lining of the large intestine, but also can affect the eyes, skin and liver. Symptoms include a progressive loosening of the stool, loss of appetite, weight loss and fatigue.

Diagnosis and Treatment of IBD

Before diagnosing a patient with IBD, a physician will rule out other conditions like colon cancer by running blood tests, collecting stool samples and in some cases performing a colonoscopy where they insert a small camera inside of a patient to examine the colon.

The cause of IBD is unclear. Collectively, inflammatory bowel diseases affect men and women at similar rates. IBD patients are typically treated with a combination of medications, including antibiotics to treat infections, immune modifiers and aminosalicylates to stop inflammation.

Understanding Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

According to the National Institutes of Health, IBS isn’t actually a disease but a group of symptoms. These symptoms include abdominal cramping, constipation, bloating, diarrhea and the passage of incomplete stools.

To determine whether a patient has IBS, a physician will perform a physical exam asking patients about their medical history. To be diagnosed with IBS, a patient has to have had symptoms for at least six months prior to the exam, and these symptoms had to have occurred at least three times a month in the past three months. Usually, physicians will be able to diagnose IBS based on this information, but if they’re unable to, they may perform a colonoscopy or examine stool samples.

IBS is often grouped based on the consistency of the person’s stool: diarrhea (loose or watery), constipation (hard or lumpy), mixed or neither.

While anyone can have IBS, women are more likely to get it.

Treatment of IBS

Like IBD, the cause of IBS is not clear. Fortunately, there are treatment options. Changes in diet, such as eating more fiber, managing stress levels, and if necessary, taking anti-diarrheal medications like loperamide (Imodium) and abdominal pain medications like lubiprostone (Amitiza) can help to relieve and treat the symptoms associated with IBS.

"It’s important for people with severe bowel symptoms of pain, spasm, gas, constipation and/or diarrhea to be investigated by a specialist to differentiate IBS and IBD," Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, a Medical Advisory Board Member of the non-profit Nutritional Magnesium Association, told dailyRx News.

"Clinically, I tell patients to go on a yeast-free diet and take magnesium if they have bowel symptoms and constipation. If they have bowel symptoms and diarrhea, I advise the same diet along with Epsom salts baths," Dr. Dean said.

"Yeast overgrowth is a major cause of bowel symptoms and follows after taking antibiotics, the birth control pill and cortisone drugs, major stress and a high sugar and carb diet. Magnesium deficiency is common in people with painful muscle spasms anywhere in the body," she said.

"If there is some improvement on a yeast free diet and magnesium, the diagnosis is likely IBS," Dr. Dean said.

Review Date: 
April 24, 2014