What is Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)?

stomachInflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is an umbrella term used for diseases that involve chronic inflammation of all or part of the digestive tract. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are two most common forms of IBD. IBD is different from IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), which can have some of the same symptoms, but does not cause inflammation or permanent damage to the digestive tract.

Symptoms of IBD include rectal bleeding, abdominal cramping, fatigue, weight loss and diarrhea. Most people with IBD begin experiencing symptoms before the age of 30. It is more common in Caucasians, but can occur in any ethnic group. Those with family members with IBD are also at higher risk. There may be environmental factors involved as well, as people who live in an urban area or industrialized country are more likely to develop IBD.

IBD is diagnosed after ruling out many other potential causes of the symptoms. Doctors may use several diagnostic tests, including blood tests, stool samples, colonoscopy, sigmoidoscopy, and various imaging tests.

Ulcerative colitis involves only the colon and the rectum, while Crohn’s can involve any part of the GI tract. Crohn’s can affect the entire thickness of the bowel wall while ulcerative colitis affects only the innermost lining of the colon unless it is quite severe. The chronic inflammation of both diseases can cause many complications. The inside of the intestine can be so inflamed and narrowed that nothing can pass through. This bowel obstruction causes food and gas to be stuck in the digestive tract. Hospitalization is typically required to treat a bowel obstruction, and in some cases surgery may be necessary.

There is no cure for IBD, but there are many treatment options. There are several medications available to help suppress the inflammation. Other medications can help manage the symptoms, like diarrhea and pain. While stress doesn’t cause IBD, stress that leads to lack of sleep can exacerbate symptoms. People with IBD benefit from a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise and well-balanced diet.

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hig2.fwDr. Peter Higgins is a gastroenterologist at the University of Michigan Health System and the IBD editor for the American Journal of Gastroenterology. His research focuses on inflammatory bowel disease, which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. He is a member of the AGA IBD Quality Measures Committee, and has participated in the development of national guidelines for high quality IBD care.


The University of Michigan Digestive and Liver Health HS_180x180services is one of the largest programs in the country, providing prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases involving the gastrointestinal tract and liver. Our 60-plus physicians are experts in the diagnosis and treatment of all diseases of the gastrointestinal system.