Conditions like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are two of the most common conditions related to IBD.
Inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, affect more than 1.6 million Americans. That means 1 in 200 people are affected by these diseases, with as many as 70,000 new cases diagnosed each year.
Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, the two common types of IBD, are chronic digestive diseases that have variable courses from mild to severe and debilitating. They are medically incurable conditions that attack the digestive or gastrointestinal (GI) system. Symptoms vary and may include abdominal pain, persistent diarrhea, rectal bleeding, fever and weight loss. Many patients require numerous hospitalizations and surgery.
While they are related and share common symptoms, there are several differences between Crohn’s and colitis. Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the GI tract. It most commonly occurs at the end of the small intestine (the ileum) where it joins the colon. On the other hand, ulcerative colitis is limited to the large intestine and rectum, and inflammation occurs only in the innermost layer of the lining of the intestine.
What causes IBD?
In a healthy person, the immune system protects you from foreign invaders, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microorganisms. However, in people with IBD, the immune system essentially attacks itself — mounting an inappropriate response to the GI tract, resulting in inflammation. While the exact cause of IBD is not entirely understood, research shows that it involves an interaction between genes, the immune system, the gut microbiome and environmental triggers.
How are these diseases treated?
The symptoms of IBD vary from person to person and may change over time. Additionally, symptoms may range from mild to severe. Unfortunately, there are no known cures yet for Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. However, there are many treatments available, aimed at three goals — achieving remission, maintaining remission and improving patients’ quality of life.
There are five main classes of medications used to treat Crohn’s and colitis:
- Biologic therapies
There is no standard treatment regimen for IBD patients, so patients are encouraged to discuss the treatment options with their providers to find the best approach for them. Treatment must be tailored to each individual, based on disease severity, anatomic location of disease, previous response to medication, side effects of medications and other chronic diseases present.
When medication does not adequately control symptoms, surgery may be considered. Up to 75 percent of Crohn’s patients and between 25-45 percent of ulcerative colitis patients will require surgery to treat their disease. Surgical treatment includes partial or total removal of the small and/or large intestine.
Living with IBD is a journey, filled with ups and downs. It’s not uncommon for patients to experience stress, anxiety, depression or other emotions while coping with their illness. However, by working with your doctor to find the right course of treatment and seeking support from your friends, family or mental health professionals, living with IBD can be manageable. For more information about Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, visit crohnscolitisfoundation.org.
Caren Heller, MD, MBA is the Chief Scientific Officer for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation. Dr. Heller oversees all mission-related activities for the Foundation, including its research initiatives and patient and provider support, education and advocacy programs.