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The Difference: IBD and IBS

By on November 16, 2014

A whopping 1.4 million Americans suffer from IBD or inflammatory bowel disease. But did you know there is a difference between the autoimmune disease, inflammatory bowel disease and a significantly more common condition called irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS.

IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome, shares two of three letters in its acronym with IBD, or inflammatory bowel disease. However, the syndrome of irritable bowel, and the disease of inflammatory bowel couldn’t be more different. IBS, a functional digestive disorder, affects about 10-20% of Americans. Functional digestive disorders are those that arise from no structural or pathological abnormalities that can explain a patient’s change in bowel habits or abdominal pain. Thankfully, the lining of the intestines are healthy, and IBS patients have no issues with malnutrition, inflammation, bloody stools, nor do they harbor an increased risk of malignancy, particularly colorectal cancer. Even so, IBS can affect a person’s quality of life and psychological health.

Conversely, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, the two main types of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), is not a functional digestive disorder. It is an autoimmune disease that affects not only the intestines, but can also cause joint and knee pains, anemia, blood clots in the legs and lungs, malabsorption, weight loss, skin and eye conditions, and even a predisposition to certain cancers. Though IBD was first thought to affect almost exclusively Caucasians, the incidence in minority populations is increasing in recent years.


Ulcerative colitis causes the large intestine to be inflamed, leading to bloody diarrhea and belly pain. Ulcerative colitis also increases a patient’s risk of colorectal cancer. Crohn’s disease, the other main type of IBD, can affect anywhere along the digestive tract (from mouth to anus), and can cause strictures (narrowing of parts of the intestine), fistulae (abnormal connections between different organs and the intestine), and abscesses, (collections of pus) either inside the belly, or around the anus. Thankfully, there are new therapies to fight the inflammation, and we have innovative techniques to help us screen for colorectal cancer in our IBD patients.

Miller02 (1)The differences between IBD and IBS are many. But, many do think that IBS and IBD are one and the same. Instead, they are in no way comparable – the medications used in IBS are meant to treat symptoms of the syndrome, while the potent therapies that IBD patients need calm the inflammation that the disease causes.

Fortunately, organizations like the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA)  has a wealth of online resources for IBD patients and support for basic and clinical IBD research.

And for patients with IBD and IBS, it is crucial to know that there are many others like them, that they can live fruitful and productive lives, and that they need not be afraid to discuss their digestive symptoms without the “ick” factor.



Sophie M. Balzora is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at the NYU School of Medicine and a gastroenterologist. She can be reached on Twitter @SophieBalzoraMD.