IBS vs. IBD: What Are The Main Differences Between The Two?

If you experience regular bouts of stomach pain, bloating and diarrhoea or constipation, you may already be aware of the terms irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and irritable bowel disease (IBD). However, despite being similar in name and causing similar symptoms, these conditions have many distinctive differences, including their treatment. That is why having an accurate diagnosis is essential. In our latest blog post, we examine the key differences between IBS and IBD, as well as highlight how to manage your condition with our support.

What is IBS?

Affecting around 13 million people in the UK, IBS is a highly prevalent chronic disorder that affects the function of your gastrointestinal tract. Women are thought to be two times more likely to develop the condition than men, while people aged younger than 50 are also at a higher risk.

The main symptoms of IBS are abdominal pain and bowel habit changes (constipation and diarrhoea). A lot of the time, when you undergo testing for IBS, your results come back as ‘normal’.

IBS is split into three types:

  • IBS with constipation (IBS-C)

  • IBS with diarrhoea (IBS-D)

  • IBS with both constipation and diarrhoea (IBS-M)

What is IBD?

IBD is the name for a collective group of disorders that affect your digestive tract, with the most common type being ulcerative colitis – a lifelong condition that causes recurrent episodes of inflammation within your colon.

Crohn’s disease is another main subtype of IBD, a condition that can impact any part of your digestive tract and cause fairly severe symptoms.

IBD is much less common than IBS, with only around half a million people being diagnosed with one of its subtypes.

It also typically develops before the age of 30, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be diagnosed with it later on in life.

Differences between IBS and IBD

It’s important to understand the differences between IBS and IBD as they are fundamentally different health conditions.

IBS vs IBD symptoms

Since many of the symptoms of IBS and IBD overlap, this is why thorough testing is needed to determine which type of condition you have.

Some of the symptoms you can experience in both IBS and IBD include:

  • Abdominal cramps and pain

  • Constipation

  • Bloating

  • Diarrhoea

  • The need to empty your bowels urgently

  • Bacterial overgrowth in your small intestine

  • Feeling like you can’t completely empty your bowels

However, IBD can also cause various other symptoms as well as those listed above. These can include:

  • Extreme fatigue

  • Joint pain

  • Malnutrition

  • Rectal bleeding

  • Weight loss

  • Eye inflammation

  • Intestinal scarring

It’s important to remember that symptoms of both IBS and IBD can vary in their frequency and severity. A lot of people will also experience ‘flare-ups’, where their symptoms worsen before settling back down again.

Causes of IBS and IBD

Both IBS and IBD can cause pain in your abdomen, but IBD can cause pain in other areas of your body too.

Most people with IBS experience regular abdominal pain and you may find that it’s alleviated when you empty your bowels. IBS pain can also be uncomfortable but not usually excruciating.

The pain of IBS can be felt in your lower, middle and upper abdomen and can be felt as cramping, aching or sharp/stabbing pain. It can also be exasperated by other health conditions that heighten your experience of pain such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.

IBD pain, on the other hand, is chronic, which means it is prolonged and can be debilitating.

While mainly felt in the abdomen, it can also cause:

  • Pain in your joints

  • Sensitive skin

  • Oral sores

  • Pain around your rectum

Having IBS should not cause additional pain. So, if you experience more than abdominal pain when living with this condition, it is worth seeking medical advice, as it could be IBD.

IBD vs IBS diagnosis

Diagnosing IBS and IBD involves very different processes. IBD is typically diagnosed through a series of tests, for example, while IBS is generally diagnosed after all other potential conditions have been ruled out.

No one test can confirm IBS. Instead, it is the absence of another diagnosis that will confirm whether it is IBS or not.

Having an IBS diagnosis will also require:

  • Assessment of your family and medical history

  • A physical examination

  • A symptoms diary/report

  • Blood tests or a stool assessment

Diagnosing IBD requires (usually multiple) medical tests. These can include:

Treatment and management

IBS and IBD aren’t curable and are generally chronic, long-term conditions. Therefore, treatment is focused on managing your symptoms to enhance your quality of life.


Treatment for IBS can include medications to help with the pain and stop the spasms of your digestive system. You may also be advised to change your diet, avoid triggers and lead a healthier lifestyle.

Treating IBS will rarely, if ever, involve surgery. It’s more about reducing your pain and avoiding any potential triggers.


Treatment for IBD will depend on the type you are diagnosed with.  Generally, the first line of treatment is medication to decrease inflammation. However, your treatment plan will be personalised to your subtype of IBD as well as your specific needs.

Corticosteroids are another type of medication that can help reduce inflammation and support your body’s immune response.

If your IBD is severe, you may need to either have a part of your bowel removed or undergo what’s known as ostomy surgery. This is where a stoma (opening) is made in your intestine and it sits outside your body in an external bag to collect waste.

Having the right treatment for your condition type is a vital part of managing your IBS or IBD.

Living with IBS and IBD

Living with IBS and IBD can be difficult, especially when you aren’t sure what your triggers are yet. However, once you receive an accurate diagnosis and understand how to manage your symptoms, your quality of life will drastically improve.

An important part of living with these conditions is looking after your emotional health. Feelings of anxiety and stress can worsen your symptoms, causing all your other work – such as avoiding triggers and exercising regularly – to become less effective.

Therefore, it’s important to try taking up practices that can help you boost your emotional well-being. Hobbies like reading, knitting or even learning something new can support your mental health. Similarly, activities like yoga, mindfulness and meditation can reduce your stress levels and alleviate any feelings of anxiety.

Book a consultation with OneWelbeck

If you are experiencing problematic symptoms similar to that of IBS or IBD, book a consultation with our dedicated team at OneWelbeck. Our in-house team of experts are here to support your digestive health through diagnosis, treatment and beyond so you can still enjoy your life with IBS or IBD.