IBD Pain: The Cause and the Impact

IBD Pain: The Cause and the Impact

Last updated: June 2020

When you’re dealing with a chronic condition like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), pain can be a familiar, if unwelcome, companion. Pain can be subtle, at times. Pain can be present at a low level for a long period of time and you can almost – almost – not notice it. Other times, pain roars so loudly in your body that it’s difficult to notice anything else.

Pain is one of the most common symptoms experienced by people living with IBD.1 In our IBD in America 2017 survey, 83% of respondents noted that they experienced abdominal pain and/or cramps prior to their diagnosis of Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis (UC), and 81% of respondents reported currently feeling pain at the time of the survey.

Abdominal pain is linked to the inflammation that occurs in the digestive tract, and the pain often increases with flares of IBD as well as during times when intestinal complications develop, such as an obstruction or abscess. In addition to abdominal pain, many people with IBD experience pain in their joints, skin, or eyes. 2-4

Why so much pain?

IBD is an inflammatory condition, and the increase in inflammation in the body isn’t restricted to the digestive tract. While the normal process of inflammation is an important part of the immune response to physical trauma and to protect our bodies from invaders (like viruses, bacteria, or fungi), the inflammatory response is switched on for extended periods of time in conditions like Crohn’s and UC, and that chronic inflammation causes damage to tissues.5

In the digestive tract, the inflammation from IBD can cause pain in the abdomen that may be dull and constant or sharp and severe. Pain can also intensify if complications from IBD occur. Obstructions in the digestive tract can create narrowed passageways (strictures), and adhesions can form between loops of the intestines or from the intestines to other organs. Obstructions can stop the normal movement of digestion as well as the movement of the other abdominal organs, which can all cause pain.6

The inflammation and symptoms that can occur beyond the digestive tract are referred to as extraintestinal manifestations and can include joint pain, skin growths or ulcers, and eye problems. Researchers estimate that more than one-third of people with IBD experience extraintestinal manifestations.4

In our IBD in America 2017 survey, 17% of respondents noted they experience inflammation in their joints, skin, or eyes.

Dealing with the impact of pain

On average, approximately 80% of respondents from our IBD in America 2017 survey have some level of pain in a typical month. Approximately 18.7% report severe pain, 32.7% report moderate pain, and 29.3% report mild pain.

Pain is invisible, and the devastating impact of pain experienced by those living with IBD may go unnoticed and unappreciated by family members and even healthcare professionals. IBD in America 2017 survey respondents noted that they wished their healthcare professionals better understood the pain associated with IBD.

Our survey respondents had a variety of ways of dealing with pain, including diet changes (56%), over-the-counter pain medications like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or acetaminophen (54%), stress reduction and relaxation techniques (46%), prescription pain medications (37%), or corticosteroids (36%). Many also mentioned their treatments for IBD help with pain relief.

When pain is a constant or frequent companion, it can affect your activity level, your interactions with others, and your overall quality of life. While what works to reduce pain is unique to the individual and may require much trial and error, it can help to reach out to others who understand what you’re going through.

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