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IBS vs. IBD: What Are These Bowel Conditions?

By Tara Hunke, PA-C October 15, 2020 Posted in: Gastroenterology

Could that abdominal pain or diarrhea be IBS or IBD? While some symptoms can be the same, IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease) are two very different conditions with different treatment plans. It's important to talk to your health care provider to discuss your symptoms and discuss next steps.

What is IBS?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a common disorder of the gastrointestinal tract characterized by abdominal pain and altered bowel habits.

Common IBS Symptoms Include

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Alternating constipation and diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • Abdominal bloating and increased gas

There is no definitive test for IBS.  Blood tests, stool studies, imaging, and colonoscopy are typically normal in patients with IBS.  Symptoms are thought to be more related to intestinal hypersensitivity or increased sensation in nerve receptors in the gut wall.

While symptoms can be anywhere from mild to severe, IBS does not cause damage or inflammation to the intestinal tract, increase risk of serious health complications or colon cancer.  That being said, IBS can have a significant impact on patient’s quality of life

What is IBD?

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohn's disease or Ulcerative Colitis) causes the body’s own immune system to attack parts of the digestive tract causing chronic inflammation or ulcerations.

Common IBD Symptoms Include

  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Blood in stools
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue

Abnormalities can be seen on blood and stool test, imaging and endoscopies.  Untreated IBD can increase risk of serious health complications such as bowel obstructions, malnutrition, and colon cancer.  If you suspect you or a family member have IBD, it is important to discuss with your health care provider.

Treating IBS

Dietary modifications can be very effective at managing IBS.  The lowFODMAP diet (fermentable oligo, di, monosaccharaides and polyols) eliminates certain foods that pull water inside the intestinal tract and do not digest or absorb well.  Foods that are high in FODMAPs increase abdominal bloating, pain and/or diarrhea.  Eliminating these foods can improve symptoms.  You don’t necessarily need to follow the lowFODMAP diet strictly forever.  It is helpful to cut out foods that are high in FODMAPs for six weeks, then reintroduce foods one at a time to identify your individual trigger foods.

Common high FODMAP foods that should be avoided:

  • Dairy
  • Wheat
  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Peaches
  • Watermelon
  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Cauliflower
  • Green beans
  • Mushrooms
  • Garlic
  • Artificial sweeteners (sorbitol, mannitol, isomalt, xylitol)

Other treatments for IBS symptoms include exercise, stress reduction, fiber supplementation, peppermint oil capsules, laxatives and anti-diarrheals.

If over the counter treatments fail to improve symptoms, there are many prescription medications effective at treating constipation, diarrhea and abdominal discomfort.

Some patients require a combination of therapies as IBS can be a chronic condition with waxing and waning symptoms.  With maintaining a close relationship with your provider, most IBS patients are able to find relief from their symptoms and improvement in their quality of life.

What to Do If You Suspect You Have IBD or IBS

If you suspect you may have IBS or IBD, talk to your primary care provider to determine next steps.

Tara Hunke, PA-C

Tara Hunke, PA-C is a physician assistant with CHI Health Clinic Gastroenterology.

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