Abdominal pain and urgent bowel movements are no joke, especially when they start to happen more frequently. They can create problems, not only in your body, but in your life as well. In fact, bowel issues are second only to the common cold in the list of reasons people miss work. Finding out if you have a bowel disorder and which disorder you have can make all the difference in you being able to live your life normally.

You may know the problem involves the bowels, but did you know that there are two very different disorders that cause chronic abdominal pain? Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Could knowing the difference be the key to relief?

What Are They?

IBS is a non-inflammatory disorder that doesn’t have a specific cause. People who suffer from IBS experience a number of symptoms, including chronic abdominal pain or cramping, constipation, diarrhea, or a combination of these. IBS is considered a “functional” disorder meaning that there is a definite problem in the digestive tract, but it does not qualify as a disease. Because IBS has no physical evidences medically-speaking—meaning that a person with IBS may still test normally and have clear screenings—it is not as well understood, and often treatments for IBS involve treating the symptoms rather than the actual disorder.

IBD is a whole different animal. It is an inflammatory disease that tends to get progressively worse without treatment. It is considered “structural,” which means that there is underlying physical damage which causes symptoms. While some symptoms mirror those of IBS, like abdominal pain and diarrhea, symptoms of IBD can include fever, anemia, bloody stool, and weight loss. Inflammation can cause damage to the intestines and colon requiring surgery. The goal of most medications prescribed for IBD is to keep inflammation from doing this kind of damage.

Which One Do I Have?

IBS is typically diagnosed through a process of questions, and the examination will help rule out other possibilities. For a diagnosis of IBS, you will be asked about the frequency of abdominal pain, and a frequency of 3 days a month for 3 months coupled with at least 2 of the following are likely indications that you may have IBS:

  • After a bowel movement, the pain gets better.
  • At the start, bowel movements come more often or less often.
  • At the start, bowel movements look different than at other times.

IBD is generally diagnosed more easily because its effects can be seen in the body, so a doctor will likely do a series of tests to see if any of the signs show up. Tests may include blood and stool, colonoscopy or other imaging, and/or CT scan. If the doctor discovers inflammation, she can use specific tests to help narrow down which type of IBD you have, like Crohn’s disease or Ulcerative Colitis.

What Should I Do?

IBS can often be helped through dietary changes. Each person is different, so involve your doctor in the discussion, but some common suggestions are to add fiber and eat less fried or greasy foods, drink more water, and consume less caffeine and dairy. Also, IBS has been shown to worsen with stress, so finding ways to decrease the stress in your life may prove beneficial. You may also ask your doctor if taking a daily probiotic can help lessen your IBS symptoms.

IBD requires medical attention, so if you have black or bloody stools or abdominal pain, constipation, or diarrhea lasting for several days or that seems to be worsening, talk to a doctor right away. You may need to be on prescription medication or even require a procedure to repair damage done by inflammation. IBD can lead to colorectal cancer, so it is important that you have regular screenings.

Whether you think you might have IBS or IBD, it is a good idea to make an appointment with a gastroenterologist. The doctors at Asheville Gastro are ready and willing to talk with you about possible diagnoses and treatment options, so contact us today.