It’s estimated that over half a million people in the United States suffer from Crohn’s disease—an often debilitating disease of the digestive tract. The disease causes inflammation and irritation in the small intestine and top of large intestine, but in some cases can spread all the way from the mouth, throat, stomach, intestines and waste system of the body. It’s a chronic disease, meaning there is currently no cure for the disease and it can have periods of flare-ups and periods of remission. Certain foods or environments may trigger a flare-up. It’s a common disease, as Americans are more likely than any other global citizens to develop it.
Complications and Types
Simply defined, Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammation of the digestive tract, but it can have many more painful complications.
• Intestinal obstruction may occur when inflammation from Crohn’s disease thickens the walls of your intestines, narrowing the passageway that food and waste usually travel through. This can lead to a bowl obstruction and block the movement of food and stool through your intestines.
• Fistulas, abscesses, fissures and ulcers may occur if Crohn’s disease is left untreated. Fistulas may cause inflammation to grow through the walls of the intestines and connect two organs that are not meant to connect. Growing inflammation may also cause abscesses, which are painful, infected pockets of pus. Fissures, or small tears, may occur in the intestines or anus. Ulcers may occur anywhere along your digestive tract, but are most commonly experienced in the stomach, making eating and drinking anything a painful experience.
• Crohn’s disease can also lead to malnutrition and inflammation in other areas of your body.
When different parts of the gastrointestinal tract are affected, symptoms of Crohn’s disease may vary. There are several types of the disease that may present in various ways.
• Ileocolitis is the most common form of Crohn’s disease and affects the end of the small intestine and beginning of the large intestine. Inflammation can cause cramping, pain and diarrhea.
• Ileitis affects the final section of the small intestine but can cause fistulas or abscesses.
• Crohn’s colitis affects the colon only. Symptoms include diarrhea, rectal bleeding and diseases surrounding the anus.
Crohn’s disease symptoms are different than average stomach pain from diarrhea or an upset stomach. Along with frequent diarrhea and abdomen cramping, patients may experience weight loss, eye redness, fatigue and fever, joint pain, skin changes and loss of appetite. Symptoms may vary depending on the exact location of inflammation—for example, inflammation in the lining of the stomach will feel differently than abscesses or fissures along the intestine walls.
While the causes of Crohn’s disease aren’t clear to scientists yet, many believe that one cause of the disease may be an autoimmune reaction. An autoimmune disease is when your immune system attacks healthy cells instead of diseased cells in your body. The normal bacteria that lives in your digestive tract to help break down the food you eat may mistakenly trigger the body into attacking the digestive tract, causing inflammation and pain.
Smoking has been shown to double your chance of developing this chronic disease. A high-fat diet has also been shown to slightly increase chances of developing the disease.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may also increase your chance of developing Crohn’s disease. These are common drugs like aspirin, ibuprofen, antibiotics and birth control pills.
Diagnosis and treatment
A diagnosis of Crohn’s disease involves several steps:
• A physical exam. A doctor will examine the abdomen for signs of bloating, tenderness or pain. They may also listen to sounds within your abdomen using a stethoscope.
• Diagnostic tests. Certain lab tests may be ordered to confirm a diagnosis. Blood tests can look for the presence of a high white blood cell count, which can indicate that the body is fighting an infection or inflammation.
• Colonoscopies and endoscopies are the most accurate tests to determine the presence of Crohn’s disease or any other conditions. They are done under anesthesia by a physician. A long, flexible tube with a camera on the end is inserted into the rectum to look inside the colon and ileum for signs of the disease. Biopsies may be taken for further testing. Physicians may also order CT scans, x-rays, upper GI scans and other tests to determine a diagnosis.
Treatments for the disease can vary. No single treatment will work for every Crohn’s disease patient. Since there is no cure for the disease, the goals of treatment are to ease inflammation and infection in the intestines and prevent flare-ups in the future. Severe cases may involve resecting (removing) part of the bowel or intestine.
While high-fat diets have been shown to slightly increase the chances of developing Crohn’s, changing your diet can help reduce symptoms. Your physician may recommend that you avoid high-fiber foods, drink more liquids and eat smaller meals more often. Your doctor may also recommend vitamin supplements to make sure that you do not develop malnutrition. Always talk with your doctor before beginning any new diet.
Disclaimer: The contents of this article, including text and images, are for informational purposes only and do not constitute a medical service. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health professional for medical advice, diagnosis, and treatment.