The Difference Between IBS and IBD

The Difference Between IBS and IBD

Just over 3 million people, or about 1% of the population, have been diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). A significantly higher percentage, around 10-15% have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Despite having similar names and impacting the same bodily system, the two conditions are different in important ways. 

At Family Acupuncture and Wellness, our team of highly qualified providers can help you understand your condition, whether you have IBS or IBD, and may be able to suggest approaches to help limit the severity of your symptoms. 

Syndrome versus disease

One of the most obvious differences between these two conditions is in how they are classified. IBS is a syndrome and IBD is a disease.  

A syndrome is generally defined as being a collection of symptoms, often without a clear cause. Syndromes don’t usually cause organ damage and there are few diagnostic tests. This makes syndromes difficult to diagnose. 

A disease, on the other hand, usually does have a known cause, and also usually affects a specific part or system of your body. Since a disease can cause damage or obvious changes, there are usually diagnostic tests, like blood work or imaging tests, that can be used to provide a diagnosis. 

IBS is a syndrome, or a collection of symptoms, whereas IBD is a disease that can cause permanent harm to your intestines. In fact, there are two different diseases that fall under the IBD umbrella: ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease

Structural damage versus symptoms

As the definitions of syndrome and disease suggest, when you have IBD, you’re more likely to have structural damage to your digestive tract. That damage is apparent in x-rays, during endoscopies, surgeries, or biopsies. 

With IBS, you may experience symptoms like discomfort, diarrhea, bloating, or constipation. But, if your doctor performs the same tests listed above, they won’t be able to see why you have those symptoms. The fact that there isn’t obvious damage doesn’t mean you don’t feel the symptoms.


If you have IBD, you have chronic inflammation in your gut. This inflammation causes damage over time. Your intestines may bleed and not properly absorb nutrients such as iron. Many people with IBD are anemic. 

The inflammation also makes it difficult to eat, and burns a great deal of energy. For those reasons you may lose weight and suffer malnutrition when you have IBD. 

Additionally, you may experience inflammation in areas other than your GI tract with IBD. You may have inflammation in your joints, skin, or eyes, leading to other complications and health issues that can be as debilitating as the IBD itself. 

If you have IBS, you don’t have inflammation, or at least not chronic inflammation in your digestive tract. You may have other issues, such as embarrassment or discomfort in social situations, and your symptoms may cause you to miss work or be unable to complete other obligations. 

Causes and treatments

In the case of both IBS and IBD, doctors and researchers don’t know the exact cause of the condition. For IBD, it’s likely genetics, environmental factors, and problems with your gut microbiota. For IBS, bacterial infections, food intolerances and sensitivities, genetics, and mood disorders seem to be associated with an increased risk. 

Treatments for the two conditions are also very different. In IBD, the most appropriate treatment depends in part on the form of the disease that you have. The goal of treatment is to limit inflammation and may include several different types of drugs like corticosteroids, immunomodulators, or biologics. Surgery and dietary changes may also be appropriate. 

In IBS, some medications may help, but dietary and lifestyle changes are often the most effective approach. We can help you learn what to eat and what to avoid. Stress can play a major role in IBS as well, and we offer services that can help lower stress. 

If you’d like to learn more about IBD and IBS, or you’ve been diagnosed with IBS and you’re looking for guidance, schedule an appointment. We are happy to discuss your situation. 

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