IBS and IBD may have similar acronyms and a few similar symptoms, but they are very different disorders. Some symptoms are different. IBS is considerably more common than IBD. Some of the demographic groups that are at higher risk for each disorder are different. Treatments used for IBD generally do not work for and are not accepted medical protocol for IBS and vice versa. Anecdotally, community resources, such as support groups, tend to be more readily available for IBD than IBS. Some people may be diagnosed with both IBS and IBD, but one condition does not cause the other. Also, there is no such thing as “irritable bowel disease” or “inflammatory bowel syndrome” or “irritated bowel syndrome.”
The media often gets some of this information wrong. Some legislators do as well, as do many members of the general public and, surprisingly, many people with IBS themselves. In the observation of the IBS Impact founder, even respected scientific journals are not immune to this basic confusion and/or blatantly sloppy editing on occasion. So awareness of basic facts is sorely needed.
Here are some reputable sources discussing some of the differences between IBS and IBD:
W. Grant Thompson, MD, FRCPC, Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Ottawa, whose article was reproduced by the Gastrointestinal Society/Canadian Society of Intestinal Research
The IBS Impact founder recently had a conversation with another person with IBS who claimed to know the difference between IBS and IBD but felt it was unnecessary to make clear distinctions, because, to paraphrase, “doctors call everything IBS anyway.” This person asserted that using the term “IBS,” whether the actual known condition was IBS, IBD or a food intolerance, was getting all gastrointestinal disorders publicity, which was a good thing.
Of course many different medical conditions need more attention, and each individual is entitled to his or her own opinions, but this one seems short-sighted. Certainly not all physicians call every digestive condition IBS, although it is unfortunately true that some are working off of an outdated understanding of the science of IBS and current standards of care. True awareness of irritable bowel syndrome depends on as accurate and up-to-date information as reputable research and the collective experiences of real people with IBS allow, not myths, misconceptions or people with IBS deliberately compounding confusion, as in the above example.
In the future, what’s perceived to be scientific truth about IBS and IBD may be altered by greater insights. For example, some more recent research than the above links does show some non-overt evidence of inflammatory mediators in at least some subset of IBS, as discussed by Maria O’Sullivan, PhD at Adelaide and Meath Hospital, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, and in Robin Spiller, MD’s work at University Hospital, Nottingham, U.K. on post-infectious IBS (IBS-PI) According to Douglas Drossman, MD, FACG, co-director at the University of North Carolina Center for Functional GI and Motility Disorders, research has blurred the traditional distinctions between functional and organic disorders. Nevertheless, IBS and IBD are still very different.
Perhaps there would be less confusion and more respect for IBS if IBS were known as (Dys)Functional Colon Disorder or another name that does not include the initials “I.B.” or sound like a trivial inconvenience with a laughable name. However, “irritable bowel syndrome” is the term currently accepted by the medical profession. No name change appears to be imminent and the IBS community will continue to deal with this IBS/IBD confusion for some time to come. It’s in our own interest to deal with the problem responsibly by calling different disorders by their proper names and correcting others when we see errors being made.