You are a unique person shaped by different traits and attributes from your experiences and genetics passed down from relatives. Someone could meet you and know some things about you, but in order to fully understand who you are and why, a person might look at your family tree. Like a family tree, we get a better picture of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) by looking at its parts, knowing how they are related, and understanding the similarities and differences.
IBD is the parent or umbrella of at least three separate diseases—Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis and, the much less serious, microscopic colitis. For the purpose of this post, we will concentrate on the two more serious illnesses, Crohn’s and UC. Like sisters, these two diseases have many differences as well as some similarities. One of the key distinctions between the two is where they are located. Crohn’s disease can develop anywhere within the gastrointestinal (GI) tract or digestive tract—this begins at the mouth, continues through the esophagus, stomach, intestines, and into the rectum and anus—although it most commonly occurs at the end of the small intestine and beginning of the colon. Whereas ulcerative colitis is concentrated in the large intestine, which includes the colon and rectum. Crohn’s disease can affect patches along the entire bowel wall, and ulcerative colitis only affects the inner lining of the intestine in an even distribution.
Both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are the result of an abnormal response of the immune system where food, bacteria, and substances in the GI tract are mistaken as foreign entities, and white blood cells are sent into the lining of the bowels causing inflammation. The inflammation is what contributes to symptoms of IBD. Many of the symptoms of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are the same as well. Abdominal pain and cramping, significant weight loss, fatigue, fever, and frequent diarrhea are some of the things you could experience regardless of which type of IBD you have. There are certain symptoms that are more closely associated with one or the other. For instance, experiencing pain in the middle or right lower abdomen points more toward Crohn’s disease, while pain in the lower left abdomen is more likely ulcerative colitis. Likewise, diarrhea and abdominal pain following meals is more often Crohn’s disease, and loose stools and rectal pain coupled with a feeling of urgency is probably ulcerative colitis.
IBD is often confused with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but they are not the same thing. They are distant cousins in that both affect the bowels and some of the symptoms like abdominal pain, cramping, and diarrhea are similar. However, that’s where the similarities end.
IBS is a non-inflammatory disorder with no identifiable cause. It is easier to categorize IBS as a functional condition. Although symptoms may be the same, they likely differ in severity. For instance, although IBS patients may experience loose stools, the volume will fall within normal limits. IBD can also present outside the GI tract and affect the eyes, joints, and skin, whereas IBS only affects the bowels. Unlike IBD, IBS is not a chronic condition and because there is no need to reduce inflammation with medication, IBS is usually treated with lifestyle and dietary changes. IBS doesn’t carry the risks of IBD like possible intestinal bleeding, bowel obstructions, or colon cancer, and it rarely requires hospitalization. IBS is a much less serious condition, and having it doesn’t put you at higher risk for getting IBD or any other gastrointestinal illnesses.
It can be difficult to determine whether the symptoms you are experiencing are part of IBD’s immediate family or if you are dealing with a distant relative. Visiting a gastroenterologist at GI Associates and having an open, honest conversation about symptoms will help ensure an accurate diagnosis. If you suspect you are suffering from IBD, don’t delay as symptoms can worsen and cause permanent damage to your digestive system. Make an appointment at GI Associates today, and find a treatment plan that is right for you.