A woman holds her stomach. She appears uncomfortable.
With proper treatment or medications, patients can usually get inflammatory bowel disease under control. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

If you are suffering from urgent bowel movements, frequent diarrhea and abdominal pain, you may be a victim of inflammatory bowel disease.

But all is not doom and gloom.

With the right treatment plan, most patients can limit their symptoms and complications, allowing them to live full and active lives, said Andrew Shreiner, MD, PhD, a Spectrum Health Medical Group gastroenterologist.

Dr. Shreiner, who presented an IBD program recently at a digestive disease conference, sat down with Spectrum Health Beat to discuss what patients need to know about the disease.

1. What are the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease?

Symptoms of IBD are often related to inflammation in the digestive tract, including frequent diarrhea, blood in the stool, urgency with bowel movements and abdominal pain. Generalized symptoms such as fatigue and weight loss are common. Symptoms related to complications of IBD, including infection or intestinal blockage, are less frequent and include abdominal pain, fever, bloating, nausea and vomiting. Occasionally, symptoms may develop from IBD affecting other body areas, such as skin, joints or eyes.

2. What are the types of IBD?

The main types are ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Ulcerative colitis affects the colon and often causes bloody diarrhea with urgency. Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the digestive tract, so symptoms are variable but often include abdominal pain, diarrhea, fatigue and weight loss.

3. What causes IBD?

We don’t know what causes IBD, exactly. It is clear that inherited genetic factors are one component, but environmental factors play a large part in the development of IBD, too. Many of the possible environmental factors are thought to be the result of modernized living, such as antibiotic use, exposure or lack thereof to microbes and changes in diet.

4. How do you diagnose it?

In individuals with symptoms that are worrisome for IBD, and not explained by another cause (such as intestinal infection), ulcerative colitis is generally diagnosed with colonoscopy and tissue biopsy, and Crohn’s disease is often diagnosed with a combination of colonoscopy and an imaging test, such as a CT scan.

5. How can IBD affect my daily life?

When IBD is active, it can have a significant impact on daily life. Frequent diarrhea, abdominal pain and fatigue can really limit an individual’s ability to maintain a normal routine. Sometimes, individuals are admitted to the hospital with severe symptoms. When IBD is well-treated and inactive, individuals can function without any significant impairments related to IBD.

6. Is there any preventive care?

Individuals with IBD—particularly those on medications to suppress the immune system—are at increased risk for a number of health problems. Preventive care is important to decrease the risk for developing these health problems. This includes vaccinations to prevent infections, sun protection to prevent skin cancer, routine check-ups to prevent osteoporosis, and a number of other preventive measures.

7. Are there any medications that can help?

Yes, there is a growing list of medications that help treat IBD. The goal of treatment is to induce and then maintain remission from inflammation, so medications work to suppress the inappropriate immune activity that promotes IBD. Various medications differ in the level of potency, so there are various options to treat IBD ranging from mild to severe.

8. How much does diet/lifestyle affect IBD?

We generally recommend a healthy diet and active lifestyle, in addition to not smoking tobacco, to promote overall health. These measures can lessen the symptom burden in IBD and they are an important component of managing the disease. It is important to note that diet and lifestyle habits are not adequate therapies by themselves to treat IBD in the vast majority of individuals.

9. Can surgery help?

There is a role for surgery in the treatment of both ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. In general, surgery is used as the last option for active disease or disease-related complications that cannot be adequately treated with medical therapy or less invasive procedures.

10. Can it ever be cured?

At present, IBD cannot be cured. However, it can be managed in most cases to limit symptoms and complications and to allow individuals to lead full and active lives.