What is Inflammatory Bowel Disease?

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) refers to a group of inflammatory conditions of the digestive tract, including Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

IBD is a lifelong condition typically diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 30.

The causes of IBD are still unknown, but some contributing factors may include:

  • Genetics
  • Environmental influences
  • Impaired immune responses

General Symptoms of IBD

Symptoms associated with IBD may include:

  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Weight loss
  • Rectal bleeding

These symptoms can have a profound effect on a person’s quality of life, since they are often painful and socially undesirable.

Plus, the disease can strike at a young age, when people may be most sensitive to social stigma.

Fortunately, our experts at the UPMC Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center care for the whole spectrum of IBD, treating the symptoms as well as the mental and emotional impacts, with the overall goal of helping patients return to normal daily activities with confidence.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

The UPMC Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) Center employs a multidisciplinary approach to treating all aspects of IBD, from medical and surgical management, to coping and social support. The following questions represent topics that are most typically addressed in interactions with patients.

1. Does diet impact IBD?

While the clinical answer might be somewhat controversial, patients describe that what they eat impacts how they feel especially during a flare or surgical intervention.

It is important to review this critical element of your care plan with your treatment team and to design a framework for nutrition that meets your individual needs. Other options include consulting a nutritional therapist. 

At the UPMC Digestive Disorders Center, Dr. Mark Dinga has worked with many patients to help formulate diet plans.

Reading credible books or literature to educate yourself about how diet impacts your body and making the choices to modify it, can improve how you feel. These can include:

  • Materials from the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA.org)
  • "What to Eat" with IBD by Tracie Dalessandro, MS, RD, CDN, a dietitian and IBD patient. Patients find this book easy to understand and appreciate the numerous recipes it provides.

2. After being diagnosed with IBD, will I be able to resume a normal life?

You can absolutely resume a normal life after being diagnosed with IBD. The key is to establish what the “new normal” is for you.

We see patients with a wide range of activity levels. Even those who are exceptionally active are able to resume activities including running, scuba diving, horseback riding, skiing, hiking and gymnastics, etc. once a good treatment plan stabilizes their disease. The same holds true for work-related, school, and household responsibilities.

Though there are times when a flare or surgical intervention limits activities, the goal is to recognize that this is a temporary delay, not a life sentence. Many patients are able to fully resume their activities. While setbacks can be very frustrating and depressing, patients do best to set long-term goals. It is also helpful to seek support along the way.

3. How can I live with chronic pain that is associated with IBD?

Chronic pain is a very difficult challenge for many IBD patients. It can be a significant source of stress. Patients perceive the effects of pain in various ways. Some express a sense of feeling weak, while others talk about carrying shame and describe families, work colleagues and health care providers who doubt their experience or seem tired of hearing about their plight. 

Pain is very real and can be debilitating for those who suffer chronically. It impacts patients’ emotional and physical well-being. Patients are encouraged to express their concerns and not to isolate.

In addition to standard pain relievers, alternative methods of integrative care have been successful in reducing and managing chronic pain. Treatments such as hypnosis and mindfulness offer powerful aides. Working with a mental health care professional can be key to developing strategies to markedly diminish pain. 

UPMC offers the Visceral Inflammation and Pain (VIP) Center which was designed to support the needs of those who struggle with issues related to pain management and overall coping with the challenging elements of IBD.

4. How will I be able to enjoy physical intimacy given my IBD symptoms or the constraints of an ostomy?

The answer is that you can still engage in physical intimacy with IBD, and many before you have. It may require patience and once again establishing a “new normal.” There are numerous solutions as well as sources in which to obtain them.

Patients describe how symptoms like gas, incontinence, diarrhea, pain and fatigue as well as some medications interfere with their desire or ability to engage in sexual activity. They have concerns about the impact of change in their body images and how their partners view their body changes.

You have a variety of choices for advice beginning right within your health care team, including the following medical professionals:

  • Gastroenterologist
  • Surgeon
  • Primary care physician
  • Gynecologist
  • Enterostomal therapist
  • Mental health care professional

Patients sometimes feel more comfortable with speaking to someone of the same gender within the team or it can simply be a personality chemistry that directs you to a specific person on the team.

It is important to communicate with your partner so that there is no misunderstanding about the source of your apprehension. Speaking to other patients who have had this experience can be supportive as can expressing your feelings to a trusted friend or family member. Isolating is not a healthy solution.

The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA.org) and United Ostomy Associations of America (Ostomy.org) offer excellent information regarding intimacy and IBD. They also list additional websites, articles and books written on this very important topic.

IBD patients describe that reestablishing fulfilling intimacy involves patience, a sense of humor during the adjustment period, creativity and the ability to express your feelings to someone that you trust. Remember, you are not alone.

Learn More About IBD

View a PDF or visit our Health Library for details on the following conditions (links will open a new browser window):

Contact Us

To schedule an appointment with an IBD subspecialist gastroenterologist, call

To learn more about the UPMC Digestive Disorders Center, call, toll free, 1-866-4GASTRO

IBD Connect

IBD Connect is a support network for people with IBD.

The network is made up of volunteers coping with the same disease who offer encouragement by sharing their own experiences about overcoming stress and challenges associated with IBD. Learn more about IBD Connect.

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