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What you need to know about IBS, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and other digestive health issues.

By Jill Case

Thanks to the internet, many people decide to diagnose their own digestive health problems. They assume their stomach pain or diarrhea is due to IBS, Crohn’s or even celiac disease, three conditions that share many similar symptoms. Gastroenterologist Dr. Sheila Reddy from Austin Gastroenterology helped us sort things out.

IBS or Irritable Bowel Syndrome

“IBS is what we call a functional bowel disorder, which means it’s not a disease but a syndrome that encompasses a collection of different symptoms,” Reddy says.

People may experience abdominal pain or cramps, constipation and diarrhea, or both, as well as other digestive health issues. Patients also report one or more of the following symptoms: changes in bowel-movement frequency, type and appearance of stool or feeling symptom relief after a bowel movement.

“Sometimes we say it’s a diagnosis of exclusion. It’s usually based on a patient’s symptoms,” Reddy says. “Good communication between the doctor and patient is always key because then we begin to learn the pattern of their symptoms.”

While there is no definitive tool for diagnosing IBS, treatment may include simple dietary changes or involve over-the-counter and prescription medications. IBS is a chronic condition, but it does not increase the risk for colorectal cancer.

Crohn’s Disease

Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease. Symptoms may appear gradually or suddenly and vary from mild to severe in intensity. Symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal cramping or pain, blood in the stool, fatigue, low-grade fever, weight loss and perianal disease. Reddy advises patients with Crohn’s symptoms be treated and followed by a doctor since Crohn’s increases the risk for colon cancer. Left untreated, this digestive health disease can lead to serious complications.

“We diagnose Crohn’s disease with lab work, colonoscopies and biopsies of the large and small intestines,” Reddy says.

Doctors may also use imaging studies. Treatment involves various prescription medications, as well as dietary changes. In some cases, surgery may be necessary

Celiac Disease

“Celiac disease only exists in 1 to 2 percent of the population worldwide,” says Reddy, adding that it is also a genetic disorder that is diagnosed with genetic testing, bloodwork and biopsies of the small intestine.

People with celiac disease experience a wide range of symptoms based on their individual circumstances. The most common symptoms are bloating, constipation and/or diarrhea, gas, stomach pain, nausea and/or vomiting and anemia.

While celiac disease can often be controlled by eliminating all gluten from the diet, it is a serious condition that needs to be treated by a physician.

Warning Signs

“Definitely come in if you are experiencing severe, debilitating abdominal pain, blood in your stool or abnormal weight loss,” Dr. Sheila Reddy says. “A lot of my practice involves women with IBS, and I feel like they’ve been suffering in silence on their own for months or even years with these symptoms.”

By the Numbers

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases:
• 10 to 15 percent of adults in the United States are affected by IBS, but only 5 to 7 percent have actually received a diagnosis from a physician.
• In the U.S., it is estimated that more than 500,000 people have Crohn’s disease.
• Research indicates that about one in 141 people in the United States have celiac disease. Beyond celiac, an awareness and advocacy group states, “Research estimates that 18 million Americans have gluten sensitivity. That’s six times the amount of Americans who have celiac disease.”

Non-celiac Gluten Sensitivity

Many people avoid gluten these days, even though only about 1 percent of the population has celiac disease. Dr. Sheila Reddy says the reason many people feel better when they avoid gluten is they may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

“Gluten sensitivity or intolerance is not celiac disease, but people can still develop symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating or diarrhea,” Reddy says. “If you have gluten sensitivity, your biopsy and lab work are normal, but that doesn’t mean that you are not being adversely affected by eating gluten because it can be an irritant for some people. Some people think they are gluten-intolerant, but that may only be the tip of the iceberg. They need to see a doctor for a diagnosis.”

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