What is inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)?

What is inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)?

By Karlee J. Ausk, MD
Gastroenterologist

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a chronic (i.e. long-lasting) inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal system.  IBD is often confused with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) because of their similar acronyms, but the two conditions are not related.  IBD affects approximately 1.4 million Americans and is most commonly diagnosed between 15-40 years of age.
 
IBD can be categorized into ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.  Though there are clear differences between the two, they are closely related and sometimes difficult to distinguish.
 
Ulcerative colitis is a condition where inflammation affects the most superficial layer of the large intestine (colon).  It typically starts at the rectum and can involve a varying amount of the colon.  In contrast, the inflammation of Crohn’s disease can affect all layers of the intestine and can involve any area of the gastrointestinal tract – from the mouth to the anus.  The type of inflammation seen in Crohn’s disease may lead to long-term complications such as strictures or fistulas (abnormal connections to other organs) that are typically not seen in ulcerative colitis.
 
The first cases of ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease were described in the 1870s and the 1930s, respectively.  Despite this, we still have much to learn about the cause of IBD.  There is a complex interplay between genetics, environmental factors, and the immune system that leads to poorly regulated inflammation in the bowel and, ultimately, inflammatory bowel disease.
 
Some of the most common symptoms of IBD are:

  • Diarrhea,

  • Abdominal pain,

  • Weight loss,

  • Rectal bleeding,

  • Urgent bowel movements,

  • Sense of incomplete bowel movements.

There are many treatment options available for IBD and many new treatments on the horizon.  If you are concerned about symptoms or have questions about IBD, you should share your concerns with your healthcare provider.
 
The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (www.ccfa.org) is another great resource for IBD information, support groups, research opportunities and more.

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