IBS, IBD, and stomachaches can all be painful and annoying to deal with, but each is a unique issue and can be managed to optimize quality of life, as well as physical and emotional comfort. So, what is the difference between IBS, IBD, and stomachaches?
IBS – Irritable Bowel Syndrome
IBS is a digestive disorder, consisting of a group of symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, bloating, gas, indigestion, and abdominal cramping and discomfort. Symptoms vary based on the individual, so some people may only experience one, while others may alternate between all of them. IBS cannot be tested for – rather a physician will diagnose it based on reported symptoms. Many people with IBS have irregular colon motility patterns, meaning the necessary muscle contractions for digestion do not function as they should and nerve endings in the bowel are unusually active. Symptoms tend to appear in adolescence or in early adult life (but can also appear later in life as well) and are typically expressed and heightened during times of emotional stress.
While there is no known cause, prevention, or treatment, there are ways to manage IBS. This syndrome can be very uncomfortable and affect daily life, and managing it looks different for everyone, so it is important to find what works best for each person individually. If you are experiencing discomfort or unusual symptoms, it is important to reach out to a healthcare provider who can assess what is going on. It is also helpful to keep a food and symptom diary, to identify if there are any patterns with specific foods and digestive reactions, as well as to present to a healthcare provider to aid their evaluation.. Another big tip is to find ways to relax, as stress is a universal trigger of IBS that can exacerbate symptoms. Strategies like following the low FODMAP diet and doing yoga might be recommended, especially at the beginning when still trying to figure out what methods work best for the individual specifically. Overall, IBS is triggered by foods, stress, and hormonal changes. If you are following all of the recommendations and your pain, discomfort, and other symptoms are not improving, do not be shy about going back to your doctor for another visit. Learning how to best manage your IBS takes time and takes some trial and error – it’s totally normal to not figure it out the first time around, or even the first few tries!
IBD – Irritable Bowel Disease
IBD includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Both forms of IBD cause chronic inflammation in the GI tract and can produce symptoms such as rectal bleeding, diarrhea, bloating, abdominal cramping and pain, reduced appetite, unintended weight loss, and fatigue. So, what is the difference between Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis? Crohn’s disease is characterized by pain and swelling in the digestive tract, affecting any part from the mouth to the anus, but most commonly affecting the small intestine and upperpart of the large intestine. With that being said, Crohn’s can be patchy, appearing at different places along the intestinal tract. Ulcerative colitis causes swelling and ulcers (sores) in the large intestine, most commonly appearing at the end of the large intestine.
IBD can be caused by a combination of genetics, environmental triggers, or the immune system, when the body sees food as a foreign invader that it needs to attack, so it elicits an immune response that negatively affects the gastrointestinal tract. It is diagnosed by a healthcare provider after labs are done and pictures of the intestines are taken using a tiny camera (called an “endoscopy” or “colonoscopy”). IBD cannot be prevented, but its symptoms can be managed. It is important to figure out how the disease affects each body specifically because there is not a one size fits all treatment approach. Finding personalized diet, exercise, and stress-relieving activities are all good approaches to handle symptoms.
With both conditions, flare ups are also normal and sometimes even occur without a specific trigger. A flare up means symptoms are suddenly heightened or that they have returned after being absent for a while. In this case, it is important to reach out to the healthcare provider who is managing your IBD – you will likely be reminded to stick to a diet and engage in practices that help relieve symptoms for the individual specifically. Both gastrointestinal disorders have different dietary recommendations, so it is important to talk to a physician and listen to your body to find what works best.
Before talking about what causes stomach pain or how to manage it, it is important to first understand that we talk about stomach pain as pain throughout the gastrointestinal tract, not just in the stomach. The stomach actually sits high up in the abdomen, specifically in the center below the bottom ribs. So we are not always describing pain in the stomach itself when describing a stomach ache, as this pain often includes pain in any part of the abdomen all the way down to the pelvis. So, now that the term “stomach ache” is more clear, let’s talk about where this pain comes from and how to respond to it.
Stomach pain is the body’s way of signaling that something is up. It could be the result of a bunch of different causes including: reflux, allergy, bacterial overgrowth or infection, viral infection, constipation, emotional distress, or irritation and inflammation. A stomachache also may indicate that the gut microbiome is out of whack. If a stomachache persists, it is a good idea to contact a physician to see what is going on and get personalized help.
IBS, IBD, and stomachaches are all unique to the individual experiencing them. When experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms that do not go away, try setting up an appointment with a physician to evaluate what is going on. While it can be tempting to follow trends on social media or look up treatments for specific symptoms online, it is a smarter idea to check in with a professional!