Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) refers to a set of chronic conditions that cause inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, usually in the small intestine or colon. The most common IBDs are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. These conditions aren’t just challenging on a physical level — they can often take a significant social and emotional toll as well. Low public awareness can create difficulties for patients, who often struggle to find and maintain employment and build emotional support systems.
Despite these obstacles, IBD isn’t untreatable. Indeed, some combination of medication and simple lifestyle adjustments can provide most patients with lasting relief from their symptoms, dramatically improving their quality of life. As you start developing your own treatment plan, we’ll offer you some tips on managing your condition.
The most common type of IBD, Crohn’s disease causes the body’s immune system to attack bacteria native to the gastrointestinal tract, resulting in severe inflammation. Since there isn’t an infection to kill, the inflammation doesn’t subside, causing debilitating pain. What causes this condition is still unknown.
Most patients with Crohn’s disease suffer from moderate to heavy abdominal pain, frequent bowel movements, recurring diarrhea, significant bloating, and constipation. High fever, weight loss, and chronic fatigue are also common symptoms. In more severe cases, patients may develop ulcers and fistulas, as well.
Treatments for Crohn’s disease will differ from patient to patient, but most cases respond favorably to a modified diet and anti-inflammatory medication. Antibiotics can also be used to treat any secondary infections. Some 75% of patients eventually require surgery, but conservative treatments should still continue after the procedure since symptoms can still resurface after it.
Like Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis causes the body’s immune system to mistakenly start an inflammatory response in the gastrointestinal tract. Because there’s nothing to kill, the inflammation never subsides, leaving the patient in great distress. What causes this response remains unknown.
Unlike Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis affects only the colon or rectum, but it shares many of the same symptoms, including moderate to severe abdominal pain, recurring diarrhea, and unusually frequent bowel movements. Many patients also report blood or pus in the stool and a loss of appetite. These symptoms often arise abruptly before subsiding, sometimes for months or even years.
As a form of IBD, many treatments for Crohn’s disease are used to treating ulcerative colitis as well. Reduced consumption of fiber and anti-inflammatory medications can alleviate many of the most common symptoms, while antibiotics can eliminate any secondary infections. About one-third of patients will eventually need surgery, but since symptoms can still recur after the procedure, patients should still follow a conservative treatment plan.
While a definitive cure has yet to be discovered, ongoing clinical research is helping us get closer by the day. In the meantime, patients suffering from Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis should consult their doctors to learn more about current treatment options, managing their conditions, and emerging new therapies.