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Is It IBS Or Something More? What You Need To Know About Inflammatory Bowel Disease

by Terry Wilson

Inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) are serious medical conditions that not only cause functional problems, but may lead to significant damage to the intestines and other parts of the gastrointestinal system. Learning to differentiate between IBD and more common but less serious bowel concerns can help you identify problems quicker.

It's More Than Functional

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a functional disorder of the intestinal system and depending on symptom presentation, IBD may be misdiagnosed as IBS. The hallmark symptoms of IBS include fluctuation between constipation and diarrhea, although some people have primarily one or the other. Abdominal cramping and the feeling of not completing a bowel movement are also common symptoms with IBS. Many people with IBS find certain foods and situations often provokes an attack. Dairy and fatty foods can encourage an IBS attack or exacerbate the problem. IBS is also more common in women and can become worse around and during their menstrual cycle. Stress can also provoke IBS.

The symptoms associated with IBD are usually more dramatic than IBS. Significant abdominal cramping and pain are common since the intestines are inflamed. Some people may experience bloody diarrhea, fever, nausea, and vomiting. Weight loss can also occur due to difficulties eating and drinking, combined with the body's inability to adequately absorb nutrients, if the small intestines are affected. In addition to problems with the intake and absorption of calories, nutrient deficiencies can also occur. Diagnostic tools, such as colonoscopy and endoscopy, are imperative for finding the right diagnosis.

Damage Is Common

Fortunately, with IBS any damage to the intestines is likely to be temporary or minimal. For example, frequent episodes of constipation can contribute to irritation of anal tissues, fissures, hemorrhoids, or rarely anal prolapse. If constipation is a common part of IBS, it is important to keep stools soft to minimize irritation. Unlike IBS, damage is common with IBD. Additionally, the damage that occurs with IBD can be more widespread, depending on the specific disease. For example, Crohn's disease may cause damage anywhere along the gastrointestinal system. In general, ulcerative colitis mainly causes damage in the lower portions of the large intestine.

Some people with IBD eventually require surgery to removed damaged parts of their intestines. Depending on the extent of damage, small parts of the intestines may be removed and the healthy ends joined together once they have healed. In other cases, a significant portion of the intestines may need to be removed and replaced with a J-pouch or colostomy. Another concern with IBD is when continuous damage leads to perforation of the intestines. This is a medical emergency because contents of the intestines can leak out into the abdominal cavity causing peritonitis and subsequently infection can spread to the blood stream.

It's Harder To Manage

Many of the problems associated with IBS include problems of inconvenience and pain during an episode. People with constipation and/or diarrhea may face problems when they must work outside their home because the urge to have a bowel movement may come on suddenly and it can be difficult to suppress. However, being meticulous about diet can help reduce the likelihood of sudden bathroom urges. Although being careful about diet is important for IBD, it requires significantly more treatment to manage. Due to inflammatory nature of IBD, long-term treatment may be essential to keeping the disease under control. Medications used to treat rheumatoid arthritis or psoriasis are also used for the treatment of IBD. Biologics help to suppress immune system and reduce additional damage to the intestines.

Understanding the difference between functional and inflammatory disorders of the bowels can help you identify problems earlier. No matter the problem, it is best to address any bowel issues with your doctor to determine their underlying cause in the early stages. For more information, make an appointment at a clinic like Northwest Gastroenterology Associates.