If you struggle with bowel obstruction, diarrhea, stomach pain, or other similar symptoms, chances are you’ve asked yourself, “Do I have inflammatory bowel disease?” Also known as IBD, inflammatory bowel disease is a fairly common gastrointestinal disease that can cause a lifetime of pain, discomfort, and bowel issues. However, the condition can be difficult to diagnose, as it shares many of the same symptoms as other GI-related conditions. In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about IBD and help you determine whether or not you should talk with your doctor about this common GI disease.
What Is IBD?
IBD is a term used to describe two conditions: Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis cause chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. These conditions can cause very similar symptoms, such as diarrhea, rectal bleeding, abdominal pain, fatigue, and weight loss, which can make diagnosing them difficult.
Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are fairly common in the United States, affecting about 600,000 and 700,000 people respectively. While they can occur at any age, both conditions will often start between the ages of 15 and 25 and last a lifetime. However, with proper care from a facility that specializes in these diseases, you can expect to have a good quality of life.
Since IBD is an umbrella term that covers two very different conditions, it is important to understand that it can affect different parts of the body for different people. Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the GI tract, which runs from the mouth to the anus. It most often affects the portion of the small intestine directly before the large intestine. Ulcerative colitis, on the other hand, only occurs in the large intestine and the rectum.
Causes and Risk Factors for IBD
The exact cause of IBD is unknown, however, it’s understood that it is the cause of a defective immune system. In a properly functioning immune system, the cells attack foreign organisms, like viruses and bacteria, to protect the body. If you have IBD, your immune system responds incorrectly to these foreign bodies, which causes inflammation of the GI tract.
While still not fully understood, there appears to be a genetic component to IBD. Some people with IBD, especially those with Crohn’s, are more likely to develop IBD if they have a family history of the condition.
Aside from family history, there are a few other risk factors that may make you more likely to develop IBD. These include:
- Age: Most people with IBD receive a diagnosis between the ages of 15-30.
- Ethnicity: While unclear as to why people of Jewish descent seem to have a higher risk of developing ulcerative colitis than other ethnic groups.
- Medications: Certain medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), birth control, and antibiotics may increase your risk of Crohn’s disease.
- Smoking: Smoking has been linked to an increased risk of Crohn’s disease of nearly 100%.
- Diet: A diet that contains high levels of fat can also increase the risk of Crohn’s disease.
How Is IBD Different from IBS?
If you’ve been researching questions like, “Do I have inflammatory bowel disease?” chances are you’ve come across another common disorder: irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS and IBD are both chronic conditions that affect the GI tract, though the differences between the two can be confusing for many people.
While IBD and IBS share some common symptoms, they are not the same condition and require very treatments. Getting an accurate diagnosis is essential to properly manage your symptoms and live a healthier, pain-free life. But, what are the main differences between IBD and IBS?
Perhaps most notable are the names used to describe each condition. IBS is classified as a syndrome, while IBD is a disease. IBS is also classified as a functional gastrointestinal disorder, which means there is some type of disturbance in bowel function.
Another major difference is the severity of each condition. While IBS can be severe in some instances, it does not cause inflammation, which means it rarely requires hospitalization or surgery. IBD, on the other hand, can cause destructive inflammation and permanent harm to the intestines. IBD also increases your risk of colon cancer, which is not common in people with IBS.
Lastly, IBS can be harder to diagnose than IBD. This is because IBD can be seen during diagnostic imaging, whereas IBS causes no sign of disease or abnormalities during colon exams. Someone can have both IBD and IBS, and people with IBS are more likely to have other functional disorders such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pelvic, or temporomandibular joint disorder, also known as TMJ.
Do I Have Inflammatory Bowel Disease? Symptoms To Look Out For
Depending on your condition, where it occurs in your body, and the severity of inflammation, IBD symptoms can vary. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and you may experience periods of active illness followed by periods of remission (known as flare-ups).
Common symptoms of IBD include:
- Persistent diarrhea
- Abdominal pain
- Rectal bleeding/bloody stools
- Unintended weight loss
- Reduced appetite
In rare cases, IBD may also cause:
- Itchy, red, painful eyes
- Joint pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Skin rashes and sores (ulcers)
- Vision problems
It’s important to understand that people with IBD can also have IBS, which can cause many other similar symptoms. If you’ve experienced any of the above-mentioned symptoms, it may be time to talk with your doctor and put to rest the question, “Do I have inflammatory bowel disease?” once and for all.
When describing your symptoms, it’s important to share all your symptoms and how long you have been experiencing them. While it can be difficult to talk to your doctor about these matters, this information is important and will help them determine what tests or actions should be taken next.
Treatments for IBD
There are many different treatment options available for IBD. The goal of IBD treatment is to help reduce the inflammation that triggers your symptoms. In many cases, this may lead to not only symptom relief, but also long-term remission and reduced risks of complications. The two most common treatments for IBD are medications and surgery.
Medications for IBD
Several medications have been approved for IBD treatment. Since IBD is linked to an immune deficiency, there are also several vaccines recommended for IBD patients to help prevent infections, most notably the pneumococcal vaccine.
Common medication your doctor may prescribe to help with IBD symptoms can include:
- Anti-Inflammatory Drugs: Anti-inflammatory drugs are often the first step in treating IBD symptoms. This class of drugs includes corticosteroids and aminosalicylates, such as mesalamine (Asacol HD, Delzicol, others), balsalazide (Colazal), and olsalazine (Dipentum). The medication your doctor prescribes you will vary depending on your condition and the area that is affected.
- Immune System Suppressors: This type of drug is used to suppress the immune response that causes inflammation. When this happens in people with IBD, it can help reduce the damage to the lining of the digestive tract. Some examples of immunosuppressant drugs include azathioprine (Azasan, Imuran), mercaptopurine (Purinethol, Purixan), and methotrexate (Trexall).
- Biologics: Biologics are a newer type of medication used to treat IBD. These drugs neutralize the proteins in the body that cause inflammation. They can be administered intravenously (IV) or by injections you give yourself. Examples include infliximab (Remicade), adalimumab (Humira), and golimumab (Simponi).
- Antibiotics: Antibiotics are often used alongside other medications, or when your doctor suspects you may have an infection. Frequently prescribed antibiotics include ciprofloxacin (Cipro) and metronidazole (Flagyl).
- Pain Relievers: For more mild pain, your doctor may recommend taking over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help ease your symptoms.
Surgery for IBD
Should medications fail to ease your symptoms, your doctor may recommend surgery as the next step. Severe IBD may require surgery to remove damaged portions of the gastrointestinal tract, however, advances in treatment with medications mean that surgery is less common than it was a few decades ago. Since Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis affect different parts of the GI tract, the surgical procedures are different for the two conditions.
Surgery for IBD can include:
- Surgery for Ulcerative Colitis: Surgery for ulcerative colitis involves removing the entire colon and rectum, known as a proctocolectomy. This process also involves inserting an internal pouch attached to the anus that allows for bowel movements without a bag (colostomy bag). In some instances, a bag isn’t possible. In these cases, surgeons create a permanent opening in your abdomen, known as an ileal stoma, through which stool can be passed for collection in a colostomy bag.
- Surgery for Crohn’s Disease: Nearly two-thirds of people with Crohn’s disease will require surgery at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, surgery does not cure Crohn’s. During this procedure, a surgeon will remove part of your digestive tract, and reconnect the healthy sections. The benefits of surgery for Crohn’s disease are usually temporary. This is because the disease often recurs, frequently, near the reconnected tissue. The best approach is to follow surgery with medication to minimize the risk of recurrence.
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