Are Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Crohn's the same?

With similar symptoms, we share the answer as to whether IBS and Crohn’s have the same characteristics.

Are Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Crohn's the same?

With similar symptoms, we share the answer as to whether IBS and Crohn’s have the same characteristics.

While both conditions affect the gastrointestinal area of the body and have similar symptoms, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s Disease are in fact different.

Crohn’s disease is considered an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and autoimmune condition, referring to chronic inflammation of the intestines. On the other hand, irritable bowel syndrome is considered a functional gastrointestinal disorder that causes bowel disruption or dysfunction.

Let’s dive into each of these conditions deeper so you can fully understand both their similarities and their differences.  

What is Crohn’s Disease?

As mentioned, Crohn’s is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). It got its name from Dr. Burril B. Crohn who first described the disease in 1932.

IBD is the term given to a group of disorders that are distinguished by prolonged inflammation of the digestive tract (also known as the gastrointestinal tract) - which is made up of the mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, small intestine (small bowel), large intestine, the colon and rectum (large bowel) and anus. The digestive tract is what food and liquids travel through when they are swallowed, digested, absorbed and ultimately excreted from the body as faeces [1].  

Crohn’s can affect any part of your digestive tract, however, most commonly the small and large intestines. The inflammation caused by the condition can damage parts of the intestine while keeping other sections normal. It can also impact the thickness of the bowel wall.

Experts are unsure why Crohn’s disease occurs, although a combination of genetic, infectious and environmental factors could cause a lapse in the immune system, leading to inflammation of the digestive tract.

Alongside Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis (UC) is another IBD. This is a condition that causes recurring episodes of inflammation in the mucosal layer of the colon, which is responsible for defending against harmful substances and bacteria [2]. It mainly affects the rectum but can extend to other parts of the colon.

Both of these IBDs put sufferers at a higher risk for developing colorectal cancer compared to the general population, so they need to be vigilant with screenings [3].

Dealing with incontinence is often a challenging and stressful experience for individuals with Crohn's disease. However, there are few strategies and resources available to help manage this condition effectively.

What is IBS?

Irritable bowel syndrome or IBS is a chronic functional disorder that affects the digestive tract, but more specifically the colon (large bowel). Rather than cause inflammation to the colon, IBS sensitises its nerves that contract to move partially digested food through the organ.

IBS is quite common, affecting around 3 out of every 10 people, with women more likely to be affected than men.

There are generally three classifications of IBS that patients can fall under:

  • IBS with constipation (IBS-C)

  • IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D)

  • IBS-mixed (IBS-M)

Like Crohn’s, the main cause of IBS is still to be determined, but factors such as diet, stress, bacterial overgrowth, food intolerances, infection and medications may trigger symptoms - which we’ll discuss in more detail below.

IBS doesn’t cause changes to bowel tissue or increase a person’s risk of developing colorectal cancer, unlike Crohn’s. It’s also not life-threatening, but can still cause prolonged discomfort.

IBD versus IBS symptoms

Now that we’ve delved into the characteristics of what defines Crohn’s and IBS, let’s look at each condition’s symptoms and how they differ.

IBD / Crohn's Symptoms

  • Intestinal scarring

  • Weight loss and/or reduced appetite

  • Rectal bleeding

  • Faecal incontinence - 3 in 4 Crohn’s sufferers experience this

  • Pain caused by an anal fistula (inflammation from a tunnel into the skin)

  • Extreme fatigue

  • Eye inflammation

  • Diarrhoea

  • Nausea and/or vomiting

  • Abdominal pain and cramps

  • Nausea and/or vomiting

  • Fever

  • Malnutrition

  • Joint pain

  • Mouth sores

  • Kidney stones

  • Iron deficiency

IBS Symptoms

  • Abdominal pain and cramps related to a bowel movement

  • Changes in the appearance of stool

  • Changes in the frequency of bowel movements

  • Urgent bowel movements and/or feeling of incomplete bowel emptying

  • Faecal incontinence

  • Constipation

  • Bloating and/or gas

  • Diarrhoea

  • Nausea

  • Small intestine bacterial overgrowth

  • Fatigue and difficulty sleeping

While there are some overlapping symptoms such as abdominal pain/cramps and diarrhoea, the majority are distinctly different.

If we’re looking at the pain/discomfort experienced by IBD and IBS sufferers, this can also vary quite significantly and may help you towards a diagnosis with your doctor, if you don’t yet have one.

IBS Pain

While we’ve listed a large number of symptoms for IBS sufferers, research shoes that 3 out of 4 people with the condition report continuous or frequent abdominal pain [4].

This pain is most often experienced in the lower abdomen, which generally decreases after a bowel movement. but still can occur anywhere in the stomach region. For example, the sufferer may have middle abdominal pain that presents as cramps, and/or upper abdominal pain which may worsen after a meal and be accompanied by bloating.

The ‘type’ of pain can mix between cramping, sharp or stabbing, aching and throbbing.

IBD Pain

Abdominal pain is certainly experienced by those with Crohn’s and other IBD - approximately 50-70 per cent report gastrointestinal pain when the condition first occurred and whenever there is a flare-up.

However, there are other ways pain characterises itself in Crohn’s sufferers which we mentioned in the above symptoms list including painful joints, skin sensitivity, eye discomfort, oral sores and rectum pain.

How is Crohn’s diagnosed?

Thankfully, there are medical tests and procedures that can be used to diagnose Crohn’s. Your doctor can request these tests but will likely refer you to a gastroenterologist who specialises in diagnosing and treating conditions like IBD.

Tests and procedures can include:

  • Blood tests

  • Stool studies

  • Colonscopy and/or endoscopy

  • MRI or CT scan

  • Biopsy (usually performed via a colonoscopy)

How is IBS diagnosed?

Unlike Crohn’s, IBS is a little less straight-forward to diagnose as there aren’t any specific medical tests or procedures that measure for it.

What your doctor may do is order other medical tests and physical exams available to rule out other conditions and get closer to IBS being the probable cause of the symptoms being experienced.

Along with these tests, your doctor will also take into account your medical history and family history.

The Rome IV Criteria questionnaire may also be used to help diagnose IBS. Overall, Rome IV defines IBS as recurrent abdominal pain that occurs at least one day a week over the three months prior, and symptoms having began at least 6 months ago.

Crohn’s treatment versus IBS treatment

Crohn’s is a long-term condition that unfortunately does not have a cure. But there are thankfully a number of treatment options available to help you manage the condition.

Once diagnosed, the first action from your gastroenterologist will be to prescribe medication/s to treat and prevent the inflammation.

Crohn's Disease Treatment

Crohn’s treatment can be more complex and can be made up of a combination of:

  • Dietary changes to avoid trigger foods

  • Immunomodulators - these interact with the immune system to help decrease its inflammatory response

  • Corticosteroids - these are an anti-inflammatory medicine

  • Aminosalicylates - IBD specific medication

  • Biologics - medication that blocks a particular protein that triggers inflammation in the intestine

  • Surgery to remove the diseased part of your bowel

IBS Treatment

The first port of call when it comes to managing IBS is for the patient to make appropriate dietary and lifestyle changes.

These can include:

  • Avoiding fried and fatty foods

  • Avoiding caffeinated beverages and alcohol

  • Eating a low FODMAP diet

  • Applying a heating pad to the stomach when experiencing abdominal pain

  • Taking supplements such as probiotics

  • Acupuncture

  • Psychotherapy to help in managing stress and anxiety

  • Relaxation techniques such as meditation and/or yoga

There are medications that can be prescribed for IBS such as intestinal antispasmodics like hyocyamine (Levsin) or dicyclomine (bentyl). Your doctor will decide if these are right for your individual needs and treatment plan.

While it may not treat the underlying IBS, if you are experience faecal incontinence as one of your symptoms, finding high-quality continence management products like pull-ups, pads or slips can be extremely helpful in managing it.

Our range of incontinence products cater to a multitude of absorbency/frequency needs.  

Our pull-ups, for example, are made with an odour locking and neutralising material and Patented Magical Tubes® that provide superior absorbency while still remaining breathable and gentle on the skin.

If you need help deciphering which incontinence products are right for you, you can take our Help Me Choose Quiz online or give our knowledgeable team of product specialists a call.

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