Diarrhea? Constipation? Bloating? Cramping?
These are just a few of the non-specific symptoms that are related to gastrointestinal disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s, and ulcerative colitis (UC). The symptoms can look the same. What are the major differences among these gastrointestinal disorders to be aware of?
Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD)
IBD is characterized by chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. Both Crohn’s & ulcerative colitis are TYPES of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The cause is unknown however it is thought to be an irregular response by the immune system, and therefore IBD, including Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, is classified as an autoimmune disease. There is no known cure.
Symptom can include:
Intermittent, crampy lower abdominal pain
Straining, urgency, or feeling of incomplete evacuation of stool
Bloating or abdominal distention
Improvement in abdominal discomfort after a bowel movement
Change in frequency of stool
Change in form (appearance) of stool
Chronic inflammation leads to the destruction of the intestines which can be seen on diagnostic imaging. There are flare-ups of symptoms with both high and low stress situations. IBD is also associated with an increased risk of colon cancer.
So what’s the difference between Crohn’s & ulcerative colitis?
Crohn’s is most commonly seen at the end of the small intestine, but it can affect any part of the GI tract from mouth to anus. The damaged areas are seen via imaging in patches; they are NOT continuous. The inflammation can also affect multiple walls of the GI tract.
Ulcerative colitis exclusively affects the colon & the rectum. It has characteristic ulcers, or small sores seen with imaging, creating pus and mucus which often results in an urgent need to use the restroom. The areas of inflammation are continuous along the colon and rectum. Unlike Crohn’s, the inflammation is seen only on the innermost lining, not along multiple walls.
Based on these descriptions, you can see that diagnostic imaging is extremely important to make a distinction between the two as the symptoms alone are not clear cut. Also, depending on the degree of disease, hospitalization and/or surgery may be recommended for management of both Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.
So then what is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
It is a cluster of the above symptoms for at least 3 months. Unlike IBD however, there are no visible signs of abnormality on examination/imaging. IBS also rarely requires hospitalization or surgery.
Have you or someone you know struggled with one of these conditions?
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