IBD vs IBS: What's the difference?

the PicnicHealth Team
May 1, 2020
Blog post originally written by the AllStripes community team. AllStripes was acquired by PicnicHealth in 2023.

Because they have similar initials, it can be confusing understanding the difference between Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). 

At first glance to many non-specialists, the two diseases might seem to be the same, as they affect the same area of the body and have similar symptoms between them. But while the two conditions may both affect the digestive tract, there are very significant differences between them.

What is inflammatory bowel disease?

Inflammatory bowel disease is a broad term that refers to several inflammatory conditions that affect the gastrointestinal tract, particularly the colon and the small intestine. The most well-known varieties of IBD are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, though there are some other lesser-known types of IBD as well. While IBD is genetic for many patients, there is no single gene that has been shown to cause it. The symptoms are mild for many sufferers, but the severe ones can be extremely life-threatening and may require emergency surgery.

What is irritable bowel syndrome?

On the other hand, irritable bowel syndrome is a disorder itself. It’s found in the large intestine or colon just like IBD, but it’s referred to as a type of disturbance in the bowel’s functions. It makes life very difficult for those who have it, making them uncomfortable and affecting their daily lives. Its symptoms range from mild to debilitating. People who have IBS are also more likely to have fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pelvic pain, and TMJ disorder. IBS affects roughly 10% to 15% of adults within the US, with more women affected than men.

What’s the same, and what’s different?

While IBD and IBS may have similarities, they are very different from each other. There’s a lot between them that is quite different.

Consider the following:

  • Symptoms - IBD manifests as frequent or urgent bowel movements, bloody stool, diarrhea, lack of appetite, weight loss, and joint, skin, and eye problems. Meanwhile, IBS manifests in abdominal pain and cramping, bloating, gassiness, diarrhea, or constipation.
  • Complications - Common complications of IBD include stenosis, abscesses, bowel obstructions, and colon cancer. On the other hand, IBS can be troublesome and impair quality of life, but it doesn’t lead to life-threatening complications. 
  • Pain - Abdominal pain associated with IBD occurs just about anywhere in the abdomen. Health experts often rely on the pain’s location to determine what type of IBD the patient may be suffering from. With IBS, pain is often spread throughout a wide area. The pain intensifies when eating, and when gas is present in the GI tract.
  • Causes - Both IBD and IBS don’t have specific causes. However, IBD is thought to be a result of a malfunctioning immune system that attacks healthy tissue in the intestines, rather than intruding viruses or bacteria. Genetic disposition is also considered among its causes. Meanwhile, IBS is thought to be a result of hyper-reactivity towards bacterial infections in the gut.
  • Diagnosis - IBD is diagnosed through specialized diagnostic imaging, while IBS doesn’t show signs during a colonoscopy or similar exams. 

While both disorders appear comparable at first, it’s clear that IBD is the more serious of the two. It’s incredibly important for doctors to correctly discern which problem the patient has so that they may be able to provide the best care.

A comprehensive patient history aids diagnosis greatly, and digital patient records can do just that. Visit PicnicHealth.com to learn more about how to access your electronic health records.


the PicnicHealth Team

About PicnicHealth

Empower people to own their medical records. Advance medicine. We’re a passionate group of doctors, patients, data nerds, engineers, and builders, who believe in making something real that changes lives today and in the future.

Sign Up

We know that every person's story is unique and deserves to be heard.

Join our early breast cancer registry to be counted and share your story with research.

Learn More

Create a List

List the names of all the doctors, hospitals, and other facilities your loved one visits regularly, along with those they have visited in the past. Try to go back as far as you can, striving for at least the last 5-10 years, but do your best. Even if you can’t remember them all, having a strong baseline can help you quickly identify gaps in records.

Ensure You Have the Appropriate Legal Status

It is important to make sure that you are fully empowered to make decisions on behalf of your loved one with Alzheimer’s. Your relationship status with the patient may not be enough to legally give you access to your loved one's medical information. It is a good idea to talk to an expert about securing special legal status, such as Power of Attorney (POA), a legal document that allows an individual to name someone as their decision maker should they no longer be able to make decisions on their own.

Gather and Organize the Medical Records in One Place

It’s important to have all of your loved one’s medical records together in one spot. This makes it much easier for you and your loved one’s physicians to accurately map the patient’s medical journey and more easily share information between doctors. Fortunately, tools exist to make record management and access simple. A free resource like PicnicHealth helps you collect and organize all of this information. PicnicHealth’s intuitive timeline allows you to pinpoint data across the medical history, eliminating your need for keeping heavy binders filled with paper records or keeping track of multiple software portal logins.

Review the Medical Records to be an Informed Advocate

The better you understand your loved one's medical history, the better you can advocate on their behalf. Access and understanding of this information will help you to ask informed questions with physicians. Through regular communication backed by the data in the medical records, you can help your loved one’s care team develop a more successful care plan.

Learn more about PicnicHealth’s commitment to the Alzheimer’s community and the Alzheimer’s Association

Learn More

Together, we can make a difference.

Learn more about PicnicHealth’s commitment to the Alzheimer’s community and the Alzheimer’s Association

Learn More

Build a support network.

When you’re juggling appointment times and insurance claims, putting a robust support system together might not strike you as the most urgent task. Investing the time to cultivate relationships with people can turn to in times of need will pay dividends. The next time you need a last-minute ride or just someone to listen, you won’t be on your own.

There are many condition-specific support groups and support groups for caregivers generally in person or online. In addition to the encouragement and empathy they provide, support groups can be a helpful source of tips, resources, and recommendations for navigating caregiving.


Stay organized.

The backbone of effective caregiving is organization. Keep medical information, appointment schedules, and medication lists in order. Use a planner or a digital service like PicnicHealth to stay on top of your responsibilities. This attention to detail can prevent future complications and reduce day-to-day stress.


Explore treatments and clinical trials.

We’ve seen incredible breakthroughs in treatment over the past couple of years, powered by patients and their caregivers participating in research. Stay in the loop about the latest in medical advancements and available resources that could benefit your loved one. Whether it’s a new therapy option or a community service that aids independence, being informed can make a world of difference in the quality of care you provide.


Make time for self-care.

It may seem self-centered to focus on self-care—but when you feel good, you can be a better caregiver. Whether it’s exercise, a mindfulness practice, a soak in the bath, or just time to rest when you need it, carve out those moments in the day when you can unwind, reset, and stay healthy mentally and physically. Think of it as building up your reserves of kindness, patience, and understanding—which can only benefit your loved one. No one can pour from an empty cup.

Having trouble managing your loved one's medical records?

Easily manage all of your loved one's medical records and contribute to ongoing Alzheimer's research with PicnicHealth.

Learn More

LC-FAOD Odyssey: A Preliminary Analysis, presented at INFORM 2021

Data from real-world medical records:

(from 13 patients with LC-FAOD)

16 yrs old

Median age at enrollment

38% Female

15 providers / patient

7.5 years of data / patient

Data from patient-reported outcome (PRO) survey

(from 13 patients with LC-FAOD)

We hope you found this session informative! Sign up for PicnicHealth’s Alzheimer’s research program below.

Join Now
Tip: Download or print the poster at the end of this article to review before your next appointment!
However, it's important to consult with a healthcare provider or registered dietitian to determine the appropriate amount of protein for your individual needs. In general, a diet with moderate protein intake (about 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day) is recommended for people with kidney diseases.

Learn more about contributing to IgAN research with PicnicHealth. 

Learn More

Save The Top-10 List

Download this list to save onto your phone or print it out for your fridge!

Download PDF

Keep an Eye on These Test Results

Download this poster to save onto your phone or print it out for your fridge!

Download PDF

Resource Flyer

Explore the essential takeaways from Victoria's Webinar, along with some resources that she shared.

Download PDF

Pre-Appointment Worksheet

Prepare for your loved one's next appointment

Download PDF