Abdominal pain patient woman having medical exam with doctor on illness from stomach cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, pelvic discomfort, Indigestion, Diarrhea, GERD (gastro-esophageal reflux disease)

Understanding Inflammatory Bowel Disease  

Cases of inflammatory bowel disease have increased in the past two decades in the U.S. Inflammatory bowel disease can cause serious health problems and can lead to life-threatening conditions – including colon cancer.  

Inflammatory bowel disease is a term that includes two types of disorders: ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Both involve chronic inflammation of the intestines.  

  • Ulcerative colitis: This condition occurs when the superficial lining of the large intestine and rectum becomes inflamed and develops sores.  
  • Crohn’s disease: This condition can affect any part of the digestive tract from the mouth to the anus when the lining becomes inflamed.  

These diseases are different than irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which does not carry a risk of colon cancer.  

Signs  

The signs and symptoms of ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are similar:  

  • Abdominal pain  
  • Blood in the stool  
  • Cramping  
  • Diarrhea  
  • Fatigue  
  • Reduced appetite  
  • Unintended weight loss  

Risk factors and causes  

While diet and stress may aggravate the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease, they aren’t the root cause. Research is ongoing into the primary cause of inflammatory bowel disease – but it is the result of an immune system that’s not functioning properly. Then as the immune system responds incorrectly to environmental triggers, the digestive tract becomes inflamed.  

People with a close relative who has inflammatory bowel disease are at the highest risk, including parents, siblings, or children.  

Risk of colon cancer  

Inflammatory bowel disease increases your risk of colorectal cancer. This is because over time, the inflammation in the colon can lead to dysplasia – in which the cells in the lining of the colon and rectum can start looking abnormal. As the disease progresses – especially if left untreated – these cells can change into cancerous cells over time.  

If you have inflammatory bowel disease, talk to your health care provider about screening for colon cancer. You may need more frequent and earlier screening tests for colorectal cancer.  

In addition to being a higher risk for colon cancer, people with inflammatory bowel disease may experience skin, eye and joint inflammation; blood clots; and side effects to certain medications including corticosteroids.   

Diagnosis and treatment  

Diagnosing inflammatory bowel disease involves a combination of lab tests, endoscopic procedures to look inside the intestines and possible scans.  

Treating ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease is typically first approached through medication, with the goal of reducing inflammation to relieve symptoms, as well as possible diet and lifestyle changes. Surgeries are also an option for treatment, in which parts of the colon and rectum could be removed, depending on the condition. 

It’s important to see a doctor if you’re noticing a long-lasting change in bowel habits, or if you are exhibiting symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease. Reviewing your health care goals regularly with a primary care doctor who knows your personal and family medical history helps to optimize your preventive health care experience. 

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Photo credit: Getty Images

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