Inflammatory Bowel Disease

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Overview

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) represents a group of intestinal disorders that cause prolonged inflammation of the digestive tract.

The digestive tract is composed of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. It’s responsible for breaking down food, extracting the nutrients, and removing any unusable material and waste products. Inflammation anywhere along the digestive tract disrupts this normal process. IBD can be very painful and disruptive, and in some cases, may even be life-threatening.

What Are the Main Types of Inflammatory Bowel Disease?

Many diseases are included in this IBD umbrella term. The two most common diseases are ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Crohn’s disease can cause inflammation in any part of the digestive tract. However, it mostly affects the tail end of the small intestine. Ulcerative colitis involves inflammation of the large intestine.

What Causes Inflammatory Bowel Disease?

The exact cause of IBD is unknown. However, genetics and problems with the immune system have been associated with IBD.

The immune system may also play a role in IBD. Normally, the immune system defends the body from pathogens (organisms that cause diseases and infections). A bacterial or viral infection of the digestive tract can trigger an immune response. As the body tries to fight off the invaders, the digestive tract becomes inflamed. When the infection is gone, the inflammation goes away. That’s a healthy response.

You might be more likely to develop IBD if you have a sibling or parent with the disease. This is why scientists believe IBD may have a genetic component.

In people with IBD, however, digestive tract inflammation can happen even when there’s no infection. The immune system attacks the body’s own cells instead. This is known as an autoimmune response.

What Are the Risk Factors for Developing Inflammatory Bowel Disease?

The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA) estimates that 1.6 million people in the United States have IBD. The biggest risk factors for developing Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

Smoking is one of the main risk factors for developing Crohn’s disease. Smoking also aggravates the pain and other symptoms of Crohn’s disease and increases the risk of complications. However, ulcerative colitis primarily affects nonsmokers and ex-smokers.

People who live in urban areas and industrialized countries have a higher risk of getting IBD. Those with white collar jobs are also more likely to develop the disease. This can be partially explained by lifestyle choices and diet. People who live in industrialized countries tend to eat more fat and processed food. IBD is also more common among people living in northern climates, where it’s often cold.

In general, IBD affects both genders equally. Ulcerative colitis is more common among men, while Crohn’s disease is more common among women.

IBD is present in all populations. However, certain ethnic groups such as Caucasians and Ashkenazi Jews have a higher risk.

What Are the Symptoms of Inflammatory Bowel Disease?

Symptoms of IBD vary depending on the location and severity of inflammation, but they may include:

  • diarrhea, which occurs when affected parts of the bowel can’t reabsorb water
  • bleeding ulcers, which may cause blood to show up in the stool (hematochezia)
  • stomach pain, cramping, and bloating due to bowel obstruction
  • weight loss and anemia, which can cause delayed growth or development in children

How Is Inflammatory Bowel Disease Diagnosed?

To diagnose IBD, your doctor will first ask you questions about your family’s medical history and your bowel movements. A physical exam may then be followed by one or more diagnostic tests.

These tests can be used to look for infections and other diseases. Blood tests can also sometimes be used to distinguish between Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. However, blood tests alone can’t be used to diagnose IBD.

These procedures use a camera on the end of a thin, flexible probe to look at the colon. The camera is inserted through the anus. It allows your doctor to look for ulcers, fistulas, and other damage. A colonoscopy can examine the entire length of the large intestine. A sigmoidoscopy examines only the last 20 inches of the large intestine, the sigmoid colon.

During these procedures, a small sample of the bowel wall will sometimes be taken. This is called a biopsy. Examining this biopsy under the microscope can be used to diagnose IBD.