How to Get a Diagnosis of IBD

For those wondering if digestive symptoms are IBD, it's vital to get a diagnosis

Doctor & Patient
When you think you have IBD, there can be a lot of things swirling through your head. Take things one step at a time to proceed towards diagnosis and treatment. Image © Getty Images

When digestive symptoms seem like they might be from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), the first thing to do is to get an accurate diagnosis. It will take time, and could mean undergoing several doctor visits and tests. That's because many other conditions can cause the same symptoms as IBD. Once there is a diagnosis, the problems can then be treated properly.

The steps to get a diagnosis of IBD and begin treatment include:

  • Compare symptoms with those typical of IBD
  • Keep symptom and food logs
  • Discuss logs with a physician
  • See a digestive specialist
  • Undergo testing to determine the cause of symptoms
  • Begin treatment

For severe symptoms, or those that are causing significant stress or are incapacitating, see a physician as soon as possible. In the case of severe abdominal pain, significant bleeding or suspected dehydration, seek immediate medical attention.

What IBD Is — And Isn't

IBD is an autoimmune condition which is incurable and defined as a chronic disease. It has two main forms: Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, with a third form that's called indeterminate colitis. Symptoms can include blood in the stool, abdominal pain and diarrhea. IBD should not be confused with other similarly named conditions, such as colitis or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Colitis is any inflammation of the colon, regardless of the cause. IBS is a functional gastrointestinal disorder where the colon has no disease such as ulcers or inflammation.

The Need for a Specialist

Keeping a log of digestive symptoms, and any other symptoms that may or may not seem related, such as vomiting, fatigue, headaches, and weight loss. Logs are more effective than memory in describing symptoms to a physician. Plus, patterns in symptoms often become more apparent on paper or when recorded in a smartphone app.

Next, bring the logs to a family physician or internist who can help determine if there's a need to see a gastroenterologist, which is a physician who specializes in the digestive tract.

How to Get a Diagnosis

A gastroenterologist will take a history of any IBD symptoms and conduct some tests. Tests may also be used to rule out other possible digestive disorders and diseases. Depending on the symptoms, there could be tests done for conditions that tend to occur along with IBD, such as arthritis. Any combination of the tests below, or other tests that are not listed here, may be used to make a diagnosis.

Complete Blood Cell (CBC) Count. A CBC count is several different tests that are run on the blood, including white and red blood cell counts.

Rectal exam. During a rectal exam, the doctor inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum to feel for abnormal areas and check for bleeding.

Stool culture. A stool culture may be used to rule out other causes for diarrhea, such as a bacterial infection or a parasitic infection.

Sigmoidoscopy. During a sigmoidoscopy, the doctor will examine the last third of the large intestine, which includes the rectum and sigmoid colon, with a sigmoidoscope, a flexible viewing tube.

Colonoscopy. A colonoscopy can examine the inside of the colon beyond the areas a sigmoidoscopy can reach. This test uses a colonoscope — a flexible tube with lenses, a tiny camera, and a light at the end.

Beginning Treatment

If the diagnosis is IBD, a gastroenterologist will devise a treatment plan. Treatment may include dietary and lifestyle changes, medication or complementary therapies, or surgery.

Dietary changes. No specific diet is recommended for IBD. However, some people find that certain foods exacerbate their symptoms including high fiber, greasy or fried foods, dairy products, raw fruits and vegetables, and alcohol. Other foods known to cause gastrointestinal symptoms include artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes, artificial fat (olestra), carbonated beverages, and coffee.

Lifestyle changes. Stress doesn't cause IBD, but it can worsen it. Eliminating stressful situations and controlling stress may help. A physician may also recommend quitting smoking and getting regular exercise.

Medications. Many medications may be used to treat IBD symptoms. Some people may have to try several drugs before finding one that helps stop inflammation. Unfortunately, no drugs will cure IBD. The type of drug therapy used will depend upon the form of IBD (Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis) and the severity and location of the disease.

Complementary therapy. Complementary therapies can include anything from nutritional supplementation to support groups.

A Word From Verywell

Having IBD often means being cared for by a gastroenterologist as well as other healthcare professionals because IBD affects parts of the body outside the digestive tract. Be sure to keep all healthcare providers informed about any treatments prescribed by a gastroenterologist. In many cases, a gastroenterologist becomes the main provider and tends to oversee the care of any other conditions that crop up as a result of the IBD.

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View Article Sources
  • Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America. "Diagnosing Crohn's Disease and Ulcerative Colitis." CCFA.org 2007. 
  • National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. "Crohn's Disease." February 2006. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
  • National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse."Ulcerative Colitis." February 2006. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.