Dear Dr. Garner,
I am 19 and I have abdominal cramps all the time. I always need to be around a bathroom. I have no social life.
My doctor said I might have ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. He said the two were similar, but he didn’t know which one I have.
Could you tell me what these two diseases are and which one you think I might have?
Colitis Problem in Canarsie
Dear Colitis Problem,
Colitis, or inflammatory bowel disease, can be devastating. It can destroy lives and attack young adults in the prime of their life. Two common examples of inflammatory bowel disease are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
It is important to diagnose which one is causing the problem as treatment is different for each. In both diseases, there is severe diarrhea (often bloody), stomach pain and even malnutrition.
When examined under a microscope, the two conditions are markedly different. Crohn’s disease is more likely to affect additional parts of the body’s digestive tract, whereas ulcerative colitis is usually confined to the colon and does not affect the bowel as deeply or thoroughly as Crohn’s disease.
Both have genetic predisposition as they are autoimmune diseases, which means the body attacks itself in error.
Ulcerative colitis has a much higher incidence of cancer associated with it. Both can also cause joint problems. Both are lifelong diseases with surgery more likely to be successful for ulcerative colitis than Crohn’s disease. Surgery might even be detrimental for those with Crohn’s disease, so it is important to know which condition you have.
The medical treatment is similar for both diseases with anti-cancer drugs, immune system drugs, antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications.
To determine which disease you have, the following tests may be used:
1. Blood tests. The tests will search for certain antibodies and also bacteria, anemia and other infection.
2. Stool samples. This will help tell if your stool has white blood cells, an indication of bowel inflammation.
3. Colonoscopy. Your doctor will biopsy suspicious-looking areas and send it to a pathologist to examine under a microscope.
4. CT Scan. This will help determine the extent of the disease.
The following helps to distinguish between the two diseases:
Location of inflammation
Crohn’s disease: anywhere along the digestive tract.
Ulcerative colitis: at the end of the tract in the rectum.
Pattern of inflammation
Crohn’s disease: skips areas so not all of the bowel is diseased.
Ulcerative colitis: disease along the entire colon.
Crohn’s disease: pain more on the right side of the abdomen.
Ulcerative colitis: tends to have pain on the left side.
The colon wall may be thickened in Crohn’s disease with superficial ulceration present in ulcerative colitis.
Crohn’s disease: connections between loops of bowel are formed which can cause infection later in life.
Ulcerative colitis: marked increase of colon cancer later in life.
For some reasons, smoking has a good effect on ulcerative colitis (but that’s not a reason to light up), yet it worsens Crohn’s disease.
Surgery is much more effective for ulcerative colitis. Both are treated with medications to reduce inflammation.
Ask your doctor for a referral to a physician who specializes in inflammatory bowel disease. Management and treatment methods will be selected, and you’ll see marked improvement. Please keep me updated as to your progress.[hr] Dr. Garner is a Fidelis Care provider who is affiliated with New York Methodist Hospital, Park Slope. He also hosts “Ask the Doctor” on The NET, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Channel 97 Time Warner and Channel 30 Cablevision.