what do doctors mean? (glossary)

meanings of the words doctors and nurses use

How many times have you walked out of the clinic and not fully understood some of the words that the gastro team used?

Below is a list of commonly-used terms and what they mean. We hope it helps you understand, but if you are still not sure, please ask your doctor or a health professional to explain more fully.

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The meanings given here refer to the context of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Crohn's and colitis. They are for general information and are not intended to replace specific advice from your own doctor or any other professional. If you are in any doubt about your own or your child's condition, you should consult a doctor. CICRA has taken every reasonable care to ensure accuracy but cannot be held liable for any errors or omissions.


Abscess  a localised collection of pus, usually due to the presence of bacteria. An abscess is the body’s way of trying to heal from an infection.

Abdomen tummy, stomach or belly

Acute sudden or short-lived

Adhesions (thought of as internal scar tissue) are fibrous bands of tissue that form between tissue and organs following surgery. Although they form within a few days of surgery and can in a few cases cause obstruction by connecting tissue and organs not normally connected i.e. causing difficulty in food passing through the digestive tract, they may not cause problems for months or years, or at all.

Aetiology the science of the causes of diseases

5-aminosalicylic acid (5-ASA) anti-inflammatory drugs including sulfasalazine (sometimes known as Salazopyrine), mesalazine or olsalazine (brand names include Asacol and Dipentum)

Anaemia when the level of healthy red blood cells in the body becomes too low

Anal tag an outgrowth of fleshy skin around the anus, commonly seen in Crohn’s disease

Anastomosis the joining of two parts of bowel, i.e. following surgery where diseased section of bowel is removed

Anti-TNF therapy used to describe drug treatments that suppress the body’s response to tumour necrosis factor (TNF), a naturally occurring protein which is part of the inflammatory response

Anus the opening at the end of the large bowel where stools are passed (bowel motions) out of the body

Appendicitis inflammation of the appendix, which is cured by surgical removal (appendectomy); as the appendix is not needed and your body can work fine after the operation. The first acute pain experienced by people with Crohn’s is often mistaken for appendicitis

Apthous ulcer very small ulcers, seen during endoscopy, in an otherwise normal intestinal mucosa; thought by many to be the earliest signs of Crohn’s disease

Arthralgia pain in the joints

Arthritis inflamed joints with pain, swelling and redness

Azathioprine a drug which suppresses the immune system, brand name Imuran

Bacteria germs that usually respond to antibiotics

Barium a chalk-like liquid which shows up on an X-ray by sticking to the lining of the digestive organs; a Barium Meal is drunk to show the oesophagus and stomach; a Barium Follow-through is a series of X-rays taken some hours later to show the small bowel; a Barium Enema is barium liquid introduced via the anus to show the rectum and colon

Biologics medicine made from proteins and other substances produced by the body, usually prescribed for people with moderate to severe disease when other treatments have not worked. It's given as an IV drip (infusion) every 8 weeks or injection pen every 2 weeks and used as a long-term treatment to help prevent symptoms returning. A biosimilar is a newer version of the original biological drug and works in the same way, but is cheaper

Biomarkers proteins in the body that may be measured by laboratory tests to assist in diagnosis and management of disease (e.g. CRP and calprotectin in IBD)

Biopsy a very small piece of tissue which is taken from the diseased area (e.g. from inside the colon during colonoscopy for suspected IBD) for examination under the microscope

Bowel intestine, gut; small bowel – the part of the bowel where food is digested; large bowel or colon – the portion between the small bowel and the anus where excess water and salt in the body is absorbed

Caecum the first part of the colon after the small bowel; the appendix is a blind-ended tube coming out of the caecum

Calprotectin – Faecal calprotectin is a substance that is released into the intestines in excess when there is any inflammation there. Its presence can mean a person has an inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

Chronic slow or long-lasting, the opposite of acute

Clubbing abnormal shape of finger nails and finger tips; seen in many chronic and/or diarrhoeal diseases, often when the symptoms are mild

Cobblestoning is a finding only seen as a result of long-standing Crohn’s Disease. The colon looks like a cobblestone street because of areas of normal intestinal lining are divided by deep ulcers

Colectomy removal of part of the large bowel. Total colectomy - removal of entire bowel. Protocolectomy denotes that the rectum is included

Colitis inflammation of the colon

Colon large intestine (bowel)

Colonoscope flexible instrument that consists of a lighted tube with a camera at one end used to look at the inside of the colon via the anus

Colonoscopy the examination of the colon using a colonoscope

Colostomy an artificial opening (stoma) made surgically in the abdominal wall for the colon to be brought to the surface; a bag is worn over the stoma to collect the bowel contents

Constipation infrequent bowel motions, or motions that are hard and difficult to pass

Crohn’s disease a chronic inflammatory disease of unknown origin, which can affect any part of the digestive tract from the mouth to the anus; most often, however, it affects the terminal ileum and the colon. Crohn's is one of the main forms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

CRP C Reactive Protein a substance made by the liver when there is an inflammatory response in the body; in inflammatory bowel disease CRP levels in the blood are raised and, therefore, measuring blood CRP is quite a simple way of detecting gut inflammation

CT scan computerised tomography (CT) scan uses X-rays and a computer to create detailed images of the inside of the body. Sometimes referred to as CAT scans

Dermatitis inflammation of the skin; sometimes a side effect of Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative colitis

Diarrhoea increase in number of stools or passage of loose watery stools

Dilated/dilation swollen or stretched

Distally towards the bottom end of the small intestine or colon

Distention swelling

Double Balloon Enteroscopy an endoscopic technique that allows a specially trained person to navigate the entire small bowel with a lighted tube from either the mouth or the bottom

Duodenum the first part of the small intestine after the stomach

Dysplasia presence of abnormal cells in tissue or abnormal growth of tissue

Elemental diet specially formulated liquid meal in a completely digestible form, rich in basic nutrients; taken either by mouth or through a nasogastric tube

Endoscopy examination of the inside of the body via a natural opening (i.e. mouth or anus) using a lighted tube attached to a camera

Enema liquid which is put into the bowel via the anus to clear the bowel completely

Enteral nutrition food taken into the gut, usually as a specially designed milk diet

Enteritis inflammation of any part of the bowel

Erythema nodosum formation of tender red lumps on the front of the legs below the knee and seen in some inflammatory diseases

ESR erythrocyte sedimentation rate; a blood test which measures the rate at which red blood cells fall to the bottom of a tube – in IBD, the ESR is raised, i.e. the cells fall faster, making it another useful way to detect inflammation

Exacerbation a worsening state, particularly referring to symptoms

Faecal Microbiota Transplantation, or FMT as it is often referred to, is the process of taking stool from a healthy donor, and transplanting it into the colon of a recipient. This has been highly successful for C.diff infection. However, this success has not been evidenced in IBD so far and there are currently trials using FMT as a potential treatment for IBD

Faeces poo (stools, motions or body waste)

Faecal about faeces

Faecal calprotectin a substance that is released into the intestines in excess when there is any inflammation there. A raised value can mean a person has inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or Ulcerative colitis.

Fibrosis formation of fibrous tissue which bind together usually as part of the healing process following inflammation or injury of the tissues

Fissure very painful crack or split in the skin around the anus

Fistula an abnormal connection between an organ and another structure. Fistulas can form between two pieces of bowel or between bowel and skin or bowel and bladder or vagina

Flatus escape of gas from the anus (fart)

Gastroscopy examination of the stomach using a lighted flexible tube with a camera inserted via the mouth

Genetics the study of genes; in the context of Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative colitis, it is used to find out if there are specific genes in certain individuals which might predispose them to develop the disease

Genital Crohn’s rare form of Crohn’s causing genital inflammation independently from fistulising Crohn’s disease

Granuloma type of inflammation seen under the microscope, typical in Crohn’s disease

Gut the intestine or bowel.

Haematology the study of blood; a branch of pathology

Haemoglobin protein containing iron; the red pigment in blood cells

Haemorrhoids/Piles internal or external swollen veins around the anus

Heartburn burning pain characteristic of regurgitation of acidic stomach contents into the oesophagus, felt in the upper abdomen or lower chest

Hyper alimentation extra nutrition, usually given intravenously

IBD inflammatory bowel disease, a collective term for diseases such as Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative colitis and unclassified inflammatory bowel disease (IBDU)

IBDU previously known as 'indeterminate colitis' and sometimes still referred to as that, inflammatory bowel disease unclassified (IBDU) is as real an IBD diagnosis as the more commonly recognized Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative colitis. IBDU is increasingly being recognized as its own important subgroup of IBD, representing approx. 1 in 10 children or teenagers diagnosed with IBD

IBS irritable bowel syndrome; common condition caused by altered motility of the bowel, symptoms often mimic IBD but there is no inflammation of the bowel

Ileitis inflammation of the ileum

Ileo-anal pouch (sometimes known as J pouch) a reservoir made by the surgeon where a bag is made out of the end of the small intestine, which is then stitched onto the remaining part of the rectum; it is an alternative to a stoma

Ileocaecal valve the ring of muscle at the end of the small bowel which controls the passage of contents into the caecum; in Crohn’s Disease, it may become scarred or narrowed

Ileostomy removal of the whole of the colon; a piece of small bowel is brought out on to the surface of the abdomen as a stoma (artificial opening) and a bag is worn over the stoma to collect body waste

Ileum the very end of the small bowel, often referred to as the ‘terminal ileum’

Immunology the study of the immune system; Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative colitis are diseases where the damage to the intestine is caused by an over-reaction of the body’s own immune system; the standard drugs to treat IBD are immunosuppressives, i.e. drugs which depress the immune system 

Incontinence inability to hold urine or stools, i.e. wetting or soiling

Indeterminate colitis more commonly referred to now as IBD unclassified - see IBDU

Inflammation presence in the tissues of inflammatory cells, mostly derived from the blood. A good example is sunburn: the reddening of the skin after being in the sun too long is not caused by the sun’s rays, it is caused by inflammatory cells moving from the blood into the skin in response to the damage caused to the skin by the sun. Likewise, the reddening of the mucosa in Ulcerative colitis is due to the influx into the tissue of inflammatory cells from the blood

Inflammatory bowel disease - see IBD

Inflammatory markers inflammation can increase the levels of some types of proteins found in the blood. Blood tests, such as the C-Reactive Protein (CRP) test, can be used to detect inflammation by measuring the levels of these proteins (called inflammatory markers). While levels can be used to monitor response to treatment, these proteins are not specific to the gut and may also increase when there is inflammation elsewhere in the body. In addition, a normal level of CRP does not rule out inflammation. Therefore, using other tests such as faecal calprotectin as well is helpful (see above)

Infusion common method for administration of treatment including anti-TNF drugs like infliximab where they are administered intravenously (given directly into a vein using a cannula and drip) This is carried out in hospital so the patient can be monitored

Intravenous common method for administration of treatment including anti-TNF drugs like inflximab where they are administered intravenously (given directlyinto a vein using a cannula and drip) This is carried out in hospital so the patient can be monitored

J pouch - see Ileo-anal pouch

Jejunum the long piece of small intestine after the duodenum to about halfway down the small bowel, where the majority of food is digested and absorbed

Lactose milk sugar, digested by lactase, an enzyme normally present in the intestines; some people with Crohn’s disease or Ulcerative colitis are lactose intolerant and need a milk-free diet

Laparotomy a surgical incision (cut) made into the abdominal cavity, for diagnosis or in preparation for surgery. An emergency laparotomy might be carried out for several reasons including bowel obstruction (blockage), bowel perforation (hole in the bowel) or bleeding in the abdominal cavity (internal bleeding).

Laparoscopy is a surgical diagnostic procedure, used to examine the organs inside the abdomen.  Using an instrument called a laparoscope (a small tube with a light source and a camera) images of the abdominal organs are relayed to a television monitor. It is a low-risk, minimally invasive procedure that requires only small incisions. 

Leucocytosis increase in the number of white cells in the blood

Leucopaenia decrease in the number of white cells in the blood

Lesion non-specific medical term used to indicate damage to a certain area

MRI magnetic resonance imaging is a type of scan that uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to produce detailed images of the inside of the body. An MRI scan can be used to examine almost any part of the body. You lie inside a large tube that contains powerful magnets. The results of an MRI scan can be used to help diagnose conditions, plan treatments and assess how effective previous treatment has been.

Mucosa innermost lining of the intestine; it is mucosa that is looked at during endoscopy

Mucus jelly-like substance produced in the intestine, lung and reproductive tract which helps to protect the surface of these organs

Nasogastric tube fine plastic tube passed into the stomach via the nose

Obstruction narrowing or blockage, e.g. of the bowel

Oesophagus the gullet; a tube which takes food from the back of the mouth to the stomach

Occult blood non-visible blood, e.g. in the stools; only detectable by a laboratory test

Oral Crohn’s a less common form of Crohn's disease where ulceration occurs in and around the mouth usually with some involvement of Crohn’s in the bowel

Orofacial granulomatosis (OFG) the presence of mouth ulcers without intestinal involvement, although it is recognized that mouth ulcers may precede intestinal involvement in Crohn's disease

Pancolitis (or Pan Colitis) inflammation of the entire colon. Ulcerative colitis is inflammation that leads to ulcers, or sores, in the colon. In pancolitis, inflammation and ulcers have spread to cover the entire colon.

Pathologist a scientist who studies the nature of diseases and their diagnosis

Perforation abnormal opening occurring suddenly in a hollow organ like the bowel

Perianal around the anus

Peritoneum membrane lining the inside of the abdominal cavity

Peritonitis inflammation of the peritoneum

Piles/Haemorrhoids internal or external swollen veins around the anus

Proctitis inflammation of the end of the colon, i.e. the rectum

Prognosis prediction based on the past and present state of a patient, as to the future course and outcome of an illness

Proximally towards the oral end of the small intestine or colon

Pyoderma inflammation and/or ulceration of the skin

Rectum the last part of the large bowel immediately above the anus

Relapse worsening or a return of disease activity

Remission ‘better’, usually referring to there being no evidence of disease activity

Resection an operation where an area of diseased bowel is removed and the ends of the bowel joined

Sigmoid colon the distal part of the colon where the colon becomes the rectum

Sigmoidoscopy examination of the lowest part of the bowel (rectum) by a lighted flexible tube with a camera, inserted via the anus

Stenosis narrowing of the bowel due to chronic inflammation and fibrosis; can cause obstruction

Steroids powerful drugs which depress the immune system, also known as corticosteroids; Prednisolone is a commonly prescribed corticosteroid

Stoma artificial opening so that the bowel contents can be discharged into a bag applied to the skin

Stoma therapist a nurse trained to care for patients with a stoma

Stools poo (faeces, motions, or body waste)

Strictures narrowing of a section of the intestine, caused by recurrent inflammation, causing problems by slowing or blocking the passage of food through the area

Symptoms observations about an illness, departure from normal function or feeling

Stricturoplasties operation to correct narrowing due to strictures, without the need to remove any part of the bowel

Tenesmus persistent urge to empty the bowel, even if it is empty

Terminal ileum the last part of the small bowel

Total parenteral nutrition nutrition given totally intravenously, often by a catheter inserted surgically into a large vein in the body

Toxic megacolon dilation of the colon, usually in Ulcerative colitis, which may lead to perforation

Transmural Inflammation penetrating through the full thickness of the bowel wall, characteristic of Crohn’s disease; not seen in Ulcerative colitis

Ulcerative colitis a chronic inflammatory disease of unknown origin, affecting only the colon and restricted to the mucosa of the colon. Colitis is one of the main forms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

Upper GI Series barium meal and follow-through (a term used in the USA)

Uveitis inflammation of the middle layer of the eye, called the uvea

VEOIBD (Very Early Onset Inflammatory Bowel Disease) has been defined as IBD occurring in children less than 6 years of age. Until a few years ago IBD was unseen in a child of this age but is now on the increase in all genders. Some paediatric gastroenterologists are now specialising in this age group which carries a more severe disease course

Viruses small germs which do not respond to antibiotics

White cell scan is used to show areas of infection or inflammation within the body. The scan works by mixing a substance called an isotope with a sample of blood from the patient, which is then injected back into the patient. The isotope ‘sticks’ to the white cells which home in on any areas of infection or inflammation and can be followed as they move through the body.

[last updated: March 2019]

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