Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) affects as many as 3 million Americans, most of whom are diagnosed before age 35. Not to be confused with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), IBD includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, both of which are chronic, life-long conditions that can be treated but not cured.
Research studies continue to show a rise in the number of people living with IBD – with as many as 70,000 new cases diagnosed each year in the U.S. – underscoring the need for more research to find a cure.
Here is some information to help you understand IBD and what to expect if you are experiencing symptoms.
What can cause inflammation of the bowel?
The exact cause of IBD is unknown, but it is thought to be the result of a deficient immune system. The theory is that foreign organisms, whether viral, bacterial, or allergic, may initially invade the small or large intestine. Instead of attacking these organisms to protect the body, the immune system malfunctions and attacks the intestine, leading to inflammation.
There is also a genetic component: approximately 10 percent of patients with IBD have a close family member (parent, sibling, or child) with the disease, which suggests certain people might have a genetic predisposition for IBD.
What are the symptoms of IBD?
The most common symptoms of IBD are abdominal pain, persistent diarrhea, rectal bleeding/bloody stools, weight loss and fatigue.
Abdominal pain can range from cramps in the middle of the abdomen or the lower right quadrant, to crampy pain after eating, to more severe pain on the left side of the abdomen or in the rectum. Unfortunately, there is no one common type or location of pain that is consistent across all patients diagnosed with IBD.
How is IBD diagnosed?
IBD is diagnosed through a combination of endoscopy (for Crohn’s disease) or colonoscopy (for ulcerative colitis) and imaging studies, such as contrast radiography, MRI, or CT. Capturing a patient’s medical history is also essential as it can help illuminate the type and location of a patient’s pain and other signs and symptoms. Physicians may also check stool samples to ensure a patient’s symptoms are not being caused by an infection.
How is IBD treated?
While there is no cure for IBD, there are several types of medications used to treat the conditions, including amino salicylates, corticosteroids, immunomodulators, and a new class of medications known as “biologics.”
Severe IBD may require surgery to remove damaged portions of the gastrointestinal tract, but with the advances in medication interventions, surgery is less common than it was a few decades ago.
Since patients with IBD are more likely to have other chronic health conditions, including heart disease, lung disease, cancer, arthritis, kidney disease, liver disease, and migraines or severe headaches, preventive care is paramount. Among other things, this means being screened regularly for colon, prostate and other cancers as well as receiving vaccinations for pneumonia, flu (every year), tetanus (every 10 years) and now, COVID-19.
Maintaining a healthy and balanced diet, ensuring you get enough sleep, and regularly engaging in aerobic or muscle-strengthening activities are all positive lifestyle decisions that can benefit your health and well-being and enable you to better manage lifelong conditions like IBD.
What research is being done around IBD?
Researchers are working to identify over 160 genes associated with IBD, which will help physicians better understand IBD and form the basis for the discovery of new drugs and diagnostics. Researchers have also determined that the bacteria and viruses that inhabit the gut are a key link between genetic susceptibility and the onset and progression of IBD. By isolating the foreign organisms that play a role in IBD, researchers can develop medications that specifically target and manipulate these microbial organisms.
If you are experiencing abdominal pain or have IBD, the doctors at Digestive Health Centers can help. Please contact us today to schedule an appointment.