3 Conditions Mistaken for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

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Evelyn Creekmore


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closeup of woman holding stomach

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a non-inflammatory bowel disorder with symptoms such as chronic diarrhea and abdominal cramping and pain. According to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, IBS affects up to 45 million people in the United States, and two-thirds of them are women. Recent studies have shown that IBS may be prone to misdiagnosis, delaying proper treatment.

1. Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): Crohn’s Disease & Ulcerative Colitis

The symptoms of IBS can also indicate Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, which are more serious conditions than IBS. Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammation that can affect any part of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Ulcerative colitis is a chronic inflammation of the colon, also called the large intestine.

Because both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are inflammation of the GI tract, they can share these symptoms in common with each other, in addition to the symptoms they share with IBS:

  • Rectal bleeding

  • Bloody stool

  • Weight loss

These symptoms are known as “alarm” or “red flag” symptoms, but they may not occur in the early stages of IBD. If you experience any of these symptoms, talk with your doctor immediately.

Ask your doctor about available screening tests than can help differentiate IBS from Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Faecal calprotectin testing is one example. It involves collecting a stool sample and is non-invasive.

Like IBS, treatment for IBD may include specific medications and lifestyle changes. IBD may also be treated with surgery.

2. Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is a chronic inflammation of the small intestine that occurs in people whose bodies can’t process gluten properly due to genetic factors. (Gluten is a protein in wheat, barley, and rye.)

A blood test called the Tissue Transglutaminase Antibodies (tTG-lgA) has shown to be effective in identifying Celiac disease in 95% of people who have it.

Currently, the only effective treatment for Celiac disease is adopting a gluten-free diet. While giving up your favorite bread or cereal may not be pleasant at first, many gluten-free substitutes are available. Left untreated, Celiac disease can lead to more serious problems such as:

  • Anemia

  • Type 1 diabetes

  • Infertility

3. Colon Cancer

Colon cancer can cause the same symptoms as IBS and IBD. As with IBD, colon cancer can cause rectal bleeding and bloody stool. If this happens, tell your doctor right away. Symptoms of colon cancer usually don’t appear until the cancer is advanced. That’s why it’s so important to have regular screenings that detect cancer earlier. Ask you doctor how often you should have screenings, especially if you are over 50 or have a family history of colon cancer.

Any time you have gastrointestinal symptoms, talk with your doctor openly and ask about available tests. The wrong diagnosis and treatment plan can give an underyling condition time to get worse.The right diagnosis and treatment plan can help relieve challenging symptoms so you can move forward in your personal, professional, and social life.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Aug 10, 2017

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Medical References

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  2. New study reveals 1 in 10 Inflammatory Bowel Disease patients are misdiagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. United Europeon Gastroenterology. https://www.ueg.eu/press/releases/ueg-press-release/article/new-study-reveals-1-in-10-inflammatory-bowel-disease-patients-are-misdiagnosed-with-irritable-bowel/
  3. Are IBD patients more likely to have a prior diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome? Report of a case-control study in the General Practice Research Database. United European Gastroenterology Journal. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2050640614554217
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  12. Screening should save your life. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/latest-news/signs-and-symptoms-of-colon-cancer.html