IBD or IBS: What's the difference?

Reader's Digest Editors

Here is a primer on the differences between these two conditions. If you suspect you have one of them, ask your doctor for specific diagnostic tests such as colonoscopy, endoscopy, and imaging techniques such as CT, ultrasound and MRI. 

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) 

Ulcerative colitis

This affects only the colon (large intestine), producing painful ulcers and inflammation in the colon’s lining, which can lead to permanent damage. 

Symptoms include cramping, bloating, diarrhoea, bleeding, constipation and fatigue. (While the symptoms of colitis and Crohn’s disease are similar, colitis is associated with bloody diarrhoea, pain and urgency.) 

 

Crohn’s disease

Crohn’s can strike anywhere in the digestive system, including the oesophagus, causing debilitating ulcers and inflammation, which can lead to fistulas or perforations requiring surgical repair. 

Symptoms include cramping, bloating, diarrhoea, constipation, bleeding and fatigue. 

 

Treatments for IBD

Treatment options for IBD fall into two categories: those for controlling inflammation in the gut and those for managing symptoms.

Biologics are one type of drug available to combat inflammation. Administered intramuscularly, they are used to relieve the painful symptoms of IBD.

Pharmacist Jim Rama, says these drugs are “life-changing” compared to the oral medications. 

Read more: How to improve your bowel health

 

Irritable bowel disease (IBS) 

Sometimes called “spastic colon,” IBS is a functional disorder of the colon that does not involve inflammation. IBS results in chronic painful spasms in the colon that produce cramping, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation— symptoms similar to IBD. Pain can move from one location to another and can occur either occasionally or frequently.

Fatty foods, milk products, chocolate, alcohol, and caffeinated and carbonated drinks can trigger symptoms. Eating small meals throughout the day may reduce symptoms. 

IBS is the most common disorder in Canadians who consult a specialist for gastrointestinal symptoms; it affects up to 20 per cent of the population there (and significantly more women than men). It can begin as early as childhood and can disappear and reappear throughout an individual’s lifetime. Stress can exacerbate symptoms. 

 

Treatments for IBS

IBS medications target bowel spasms, diarrhoea, constipation, pain, anxiety and depression.

Flare-ups can be reduced by monitoring your diet, exercising regularly and practising stress relief through yoga, meditation or mindfulness.