Inflammatory Bowel Disease, commonly known as IBD, involves persistent inflammation in the lining of the intestine or bowel. The primary forms of this chronic condition are Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn's Disease.

Ulcerative Colitis

Ulcerative colitis, which specifically targets the colon, is usually identified by episodes of diarrhea accompanied by mucous and/or blood. The intensity of the diarrhoea varies based on the level of inflammation and the extent of bowel inflammation.

In cases where the entire colon is affected, the diarrhoea can be extremely severe. However, if only the lower parts of the colon (the sigmoid or rectum) are affected, the stool may be firmer but still show signs of blood.

Crohn's Disease

Crohn's disease can affect both the small bowel and the colon. In its early stages, it may cause minimal or no symptoms at all. If only a part of the colon is affected or if it is completely unaffected, there may be no diarrhoea. Abdominal pain, which can sometimes be mistaken for appendicitis, is often present.

In the early stages of Crohn's disease, there may be nutritional deficiencies leading to significant weight loss. Some patients may experience inflammation in the anal region, resulting in the formation of fistulas and abscesses. A fistula is a tube-like tract lined with inflammatory cells that may connect two hollow organs or open into the outer skin or anal mucosal membrane. Fistulas are found in up to 30% of patients with Crohn's disease.

If there are weeping, purulent fistulas in the anal region, especially if they recur, further examination of the bowel should be considered. When a patient reports several of the symptoms described above, the physician should consider the possibility of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Common Symptoms of Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Although Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn's Disease both result in inflammation in the intestinal lining, each manifests different symptoms based on the location and severity of the inflammation. Shared symptoms between the two include fatigue, reduced appetite, and occasional fever. Symptoms specifically associated with bowel inflammation involve:

  • Irregular bowel movements containing mucous and/or blood
  • Severe diarrhoea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Occult or hidden bleeding detectable only through special tests
  • Potential for iron loss leading to anaemia

Furthermore, beyond bowel-related symptoms, up to 25% of patients might experience:

  • Joint pain or inflammation (arthritis) in the spine and pelvis
  • Skin reactions like painful, purplish-red thickened areas commonly on arms and legs
  • Eye inflammation, particularly in the iris and conjunctiva

Causes and Risk Factors for IBD

The root cause of IBD is yet to be confirmed, but it is believed that a combination of genetic susceptibility and environmental factors contribute to these recurring inflammation episodes. Other influencing variables could include viral or bacterial exposure, diet changes, certain preservatives or food additives, and immune system irregularities.

How Is IBD Diagnosed?

If you're concerned you might have IBD, consider undergoing the following diagnostic procedures:

  • Comprehensive physical examination focusing on the abdomen and rectum
  • Lab tests including blood and stool samples to identify signs of inflammation
  • Abdominal ultrasound to identify any abnormalities like bowel widening or wall thickening
  • Endoscopy to inspect the digestive tract's inner lining
  • Radiological scans such as X-ray, MRI, and CT scans

Treatment Options for Managing IBD

Therapies for IBD can encompass medication, dietary adjustments, emotional support, and surgical interventions. The main aim is to relieve symptoms like diarrhoea, abdominal pain, and blood loss, and subsequently, to prevent recurrence. Notably, quitting smoking can significantly reduce the chances of Crohn’s disease recurrence by 60% over a span of two years.

Living with Inflammatory Bowel Disease

IBD is a lifelong condition with cycles of remission and relapse, yet many people maintain a quality life. If you are dealing with persistent symptoms, consider:

  • Understanding your body and how IBD impacts it
  • Gaining control over manageable aspects of your life
  • Establishing a reliable support network comprising family, friends, and support groups
  • Strictly adhering to your healthcare team's guidance