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When you hear about irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), you may assume they are the same digestive issue. However, there are distinct differences between the two. Both share some symptoms, but it is important to be able to distinguish between them when talking to your doctor about any digestive issues you may be experiencing.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

IBS is very common and patients typically have upper or lower digestive tract symptoms. Those with IBS may experience abdominal pain, unusual cramping, bloating, belching, gas, constipation and diarrhea. Associated symptoms include sexual dysfunction and changes in consistency of stools. Many symptoms are relieved by having a bowel movement and do not occur during sleep.

Diagnosis requires additional investigations by a gastroenterologist to rule out other conditions. Typical tests include stool studies and blood tests. Some patients may need upper or lower endoscopies as well. Symptoms such as rectal bleeding, weight loss or persistent pain that won’t subside may indicate a more serious issue, and you should notify your doctor as soon as possible if you experience these symptoms.

IBS is not life threatening but can severely affect the quality of life. Treatment options typically include a combination of diet/lifestyle changes and medications that control bowel habits as well as pain perception pathways between the brain and the gut.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

Unlike IBS, inflammatory bowel disease causes damage (ulcers or lesions) in the tissue of the digestive tract. These symptoms can present anywhere along the GI tract. Additionally, many patients develop extra-intestinal symptoms such as joint pain, changes in vision, fatigue and skin rashes. Two traditional presentations of IBD include ulcerative colitis (involving only the colon or large intestine) and Crohn’s disease (involving any part of the digestive system from mouth to anus). Depending on the stage of the disease and the extent of involvement, it can be difficult to differentiate between the two. Tissue samples obtained during an endoscopy and additional imaging studies (CT scan or MRI) can help with the diagnosis in such cases.

IBD shares some symptoms with IBS, including abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea and bowel movement urgency. The main difference is that IBD has more severe symptoms and treatment may include long-term medication therapy or surgery. There is no cure for IBD, but there are ways to minimize pain and control progression of symptoms through medication and lifestyle changes.

Many patients live a normal productive life with medication therapy but some may require surgery including removing parts of the small intestine or the colon. It is important to identify symptoms early to prevent long-term complications (such as anemia, malnutrition, bowel obstruction and increased colon cancer risk).

If you experience any of the symptoms associated with IBS or IBD, you should visit a gastroenterologist.

Weekly Health Tips are brought to you by UCF Health, the College of Medicine’s physician practice. Offering primary and specialty care under one roof, UCF Health treats patients age 16 and up in primary care and age 18 and up for specialty care. Most major insurance plans are accepted. Two locations are now open: the original in East Orlando at Quadrangle and University boulevards just blocks from the main UCF campus, and the newest one in Medical City at Narcoossee Road and Tavistock Lakes Boulevard. Information for both facilities can be found at, or call (407) 266-DOCS to schedule an appointment.

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