Healthy Living

The Real, Everyday Differences Between Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s

UC and Crohn's disease affect the quality of life for anyone suffering with them. Here's what you need to know.

The Real, Everyday Differences Between Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s

If you are experiencing chronic gastrointestinal issues, you may have ulcerative colitis (UC) or Crohn’s disease. Both are two of the most common types of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), affecting more than 1.6 million Americans.

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When you have IBD, your immune system mistakenly views food, bacteria, and other substances found in the gastrointestinal tract as foreign substances. Therefore, white blood cells are sent in the lining of the bowel walls. The end result of this abnormal response is chronic inflammation.

Both UC and Crohn’s disease share many symptoms, including abdominal pain, diarrhea, loose stools, rectal bleeding, and weight fluctuation. Usually, they develop in adolescents and young adults, and they affect women and men equally.

Despite their similarities, there are key differences among UC and Crohn’s disease. Understanding them is important so that doctors are able to make the correct diagnosis.

  1. Location – Both UC and Crohn’s disease cause inflammation. However, UC is limited to the colon, whereas Crohn’s disease can affect the entire gastrointestinal tract. Where the inflammation occurs is an important factor that can lead doctors to obtain a proper diagnosis in most instances.
  2. Symptoms – The most common symptoms of UC include abdominal pain, loose or bloody stools, urgent bowel, fatigue, and loss of appetite. Crohn’s disease, triggers severe abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, weight loss, and occasionally, rectal bleeding and diarrhea. Some individuals with Crohn’s disease that is closer to the abdomen are more likely to experience nausea and vomiting as symptoms.
  3. Treatment – Treatment options for UC and Crohn’s disease are generally the same, each aimed at reducing the ongoing inflammation and maintaining remission. Still, there may be differences in medications or in the way the patient responds. The most common medications used to treat these IBDs are aminosalicylates, antibiotics, steroids, and immunomodulators. However, the exception is biologic therapy, which is recommended for UC but not for Crohn’s disease.
  4. Surgery – Surgery is a treatment option that varies between UC and Crohn’s disease. It is reserved for extreme cases, where the patient may be experiencing complications, such as cancerous growth or perforation of the bowel, and excessive bleeding. Unlike with Crohn’s disease, a majority of individuals with UC will most likely never require surgical treatment. Those who do decide to undergo surgery have their colon and rectum removed, which is considered a cure for UC (seeing as how the disease no longer has a place to reside). Crohn’s disease, however, may eventually come back later on in life following surgery.
  5. Diagnostic tests – The standard diagnostic test used to diagnose IBD is a colonoscopy. This procedure allows the doctor (usually a gastroenterologist) to see the entire colon and to take a biopsy of the affected tissue. If the doctor notices that the inflammation starts at the rectum and moves up towards the colon, then it is most likely UC. In Crohn’s disease, however, inflammation can occur anywhere in the gastrointestinal tract. There are typically patches of healthy tissue mixed in between inflamed areas. What’s more, Crohn’s disease may involve just the rectum and some of the colon and it has clusters of immune cells known as granulomas, whereas UC does not. If the doctor suspects that the small intestine is involved in Crohn’s disease, he or she may recommend an upper endoscopy.
  • Perianal issues – Due to the fact that Crohn’s disease affects most of the layers of the gastrointestinal tract, it triggers some specific perianal issues that doctors do not usually see in individuals with UC. These issues include anal sores, fistulas, and skin tags.
  • Nutrition and diet plans – Both UC and Crohn’s disease tend to reduce an individual’s appetite. Still, affected individuals find that modifying what they eat, based on what intensifies their symptoms, is helpful. That being said, diet plans vary among individuals and disease. For instance, an individual with Crohn’s disease may find maintaining a bland diet to be an effective approach during a flare up, and they may eat foods that an individual with UC would not be able to tolerate.

If you are living with UC or Crohn’s disease, then you are far too familiar with symptoms such as abdominal pain and cramping. Even with a solid treatment plan, there are several reasons as to why you may experience pain and discomfort, including ongoing inflammation and your level of sensitivity – to name a few.
Whatever the cause, it is important that you find strategies to help you feel better, so consider these following five approaches:

  • Heating pads and pillows – Holding something warm against your stomach may help to alleviate the severity of your symptoms.
  • Probiotics – Probiotics, also known as “good” bacteria, can help your overall gastrointestinal health and can help you to maintain remission. They are found in certain foods, but they also come in supplements, which are available in various forms, including capsules and tablets.
  • Vitamin supplements – According to recent evidence, individuals who lack enough vitamin D tend to experience worsen IBD symptoms. Talk with your doctor about your nutritional status and what kind of vitamin supplements may be beneficial for you.
  • Dietary changes – In both UC and Crohn’s disease, there are certain foods or situations that may aggravate symptoms. Identifying these triggers and making necessary dietary changes may help cut down on your discomfort.
  • Relaxation techniques – Certain relaxation techniques, such as yoga and meditation, are known to help reduce overall stress. According to a recent study, these techniques can help to improve IBD symptoms, as well as anxiety, depression, and quality of life among individuals with UC and Crohn’s disease.

There is no question that IBD can significantly affect your everyday living, in between leading to frequent visits to the bathroom and triggering uncomfortable symptoms. This is why it is important to consult with a doctor if you start to experience any abnormal symptoms. He or she may refer you to a gastroenterologist for IBD testing, such as a colonoscopy or a CT scan.
While there is no cure for any form of IBD, diagnosing the right form will lead to more effective treatment plans. Early intervention and lifestyle changes can help to alleviate your symptoms, minimize damage and complications, as well as improve your quality of life.