Body of Symptoms: IBD Affects More Than Your Gut

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on May 27, 2024
4 min read

You know the main symptoms of inflammatory bowel diseases. But did you know that Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis -- both of which are IBDs -- can trigger problems elsewhere in your body? They can show up before you even know you have an IBD, or not until years after your diagnosis.

Many of these issues go away when you get your inflammatory bowel disease under control. That’s because treating the inflammation that goes along with an IBD can help manage it in other parts of your body, too.

Other conditions are more serious, and you may need extra treatment. Your meds might be to blame, or they could crop up because your body can’t absorb nutrients from your foods during a flare-up.

The type of IBD you have, Crohn's or ulcerative colitis, can also make you more likely to have problems outside your digestive tract.

These “extra-intestinal” symptoms, as doctors like to call them, can affect many areas of your body, including your joints, mouth, eyes, skin, liver, gallbladder, kidney, and pancreas. Even osteoporosis has been linked to IBDs. You can have one of these extra symptoms or several. They're more common if your parents or siblings have an inflammatory bowel disease and have extra-intestinal problems related to IBD.

Here’s how conditions like Crohn's and ulcerative colitis can affect other parts of your body.

Joint pain is the most common non-gut ailment for people with IBD. It can affect your large joints like your ankles, hips, or knees, or small ones like your fingers.

Although you might notice symptoms as long as a decade before you’re diagnosed, this type of arthritis usually doesn’t damage your joints. It should go away once you get your disease under control. Talk to your doctor before you take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for joint pain. They can make your IBD worse.

Another less-common type affects your spine (ankylosing spondylitis) or lower back (sacroiliitis). It’s more common in men than women.

You might get raised, painful lumps under your skin, usually on your lower legs. You might hear your doctor call them erythema nodosum. They’ll probably show up at the same time as your IBD flares. They, too, will go away -- without leaving scars -- when you get a handle on the disease.

Less common but more serious are ulcers (called pyoderma gangrenosum) that can range from a small spot to the length of your leg. The more serious your IBD symptoms are, the more likely you are to get them. Doctors treat them with high-powered meds that target your immune system.

If you have Crohn’s disease, you might also get lesions inside your mouth. Antiseptic mouthwash and topical steroids can help.

If you’re over 40 and you have joint pain with your IBD, you might also have problems with your eyes.

The most common is episcleritis. Mild symptoms include redness, burning, and sensitivity. They’ll go away as you treat your inflammatory bowel disease.

More painful eye conditions include uveitis, an inflammation in the middle part of your eye, and scleritis, which affects the white of it. It can cause vision loss if you don't get it treated.

There are a few reasons people with IBD get osteoporosis.

Medications, like steroids, not enough physical activity, and trouble absorbing vitamin D and minerals such as calcium and magnesium all play a role.

You’re also more likely to break a bone than people who do not have an inflammatory bowel disease. This risk goes up as you age. Usually, women are at greater risk for osteoporosis. But IBD-related osteoporosis affects men and women in equal numbers.

Calcium and vitamin supplements can help keep your bones healthy, along with exercise, avoiding alcohol, and not smoking.

Other potential problems include:

  • Anemia
  • Gallstones and kidney stones
  • Inflamed liver
  • Inflamed or scarred bile ducts, especially if you have ulcerative colitis
  • Inflamed airways, making it harder to breathe
  • Delayed growth or puberty in children and teens

Your doctor will help you spot these problems. They may refer you to a specialist, like a rheumatologist for your joints, a dermatologist for your skin, or an ophthalmologist for your eyes, depending on how bad your symptoms are.

Eat well, drink plenty of liquids, and take supplements if your doctor says you need them to replace vitamins and minerals that your body loses during flare-ups. Smoking raises the chances that you’ll have extra symptoms, so work with your doctor or another health professional to help you stop.