Crohn’s disease belongs to a group of conditions known as Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (IBD) and is a chronic inflammatory condition that affects the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Although often associated together, Crohn’s is not the same as ulcerative colitis. Crohn's disease occurs when the body attacks “good” bacteria in your GI tract that aid in digestion and immune support.
The gastrointestinal (GI) tract includes a series of hollow organs, including the large and small intestine that absorb water and nutrients from food. In most cases, Crohn’s affects the small intestine that connects the stomach with the large intestine.
The walls of the intestines have several layers that each perform a different task. Crohn’s disease often starts as localized inflammation in the innermost layer of the intestine, known as the bowel mucosa. This layer of tissue works to digest food and absorb nutrients; gastrointestinal mucosa also defends your body from bacteria and other harmful substances in food. In time, inflammation of Crohn’s disease can involve other layers of the intestinal wall.
Inflammation of the digestive tract associated with Crohn’s disease can lead to abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, malnutrition, weight loss, and fatigue. Left untreated, it can lead to other health conditions.
Crohn’s disease commonly affects the end of the small intestine and colon, but can affect any part of the GI tract. Signs and symptoms vary and can range from mild to severe. When active, signs and symptoms of Crohn’s disease may include:
The causes of Crohn’s Disease are unknown. Though it can occur at any age, most people are diagnosed before age 30. Diet and stress may aggravate Crohn’s, but they do not cause the disease. Factors including heredity, genetics and environment may also play a role.
Certain factors can increase your risk for developing Crohn’s disease. These risk factors for Crohn’s disease may include:
Age – while the condition can occur at any age, most people who develop Crohn’s disease receive their diagnosis when they are between the ages of 20 and 30.
Family history – as many as 1 in 5 people with Crohn’s disease has a first-degree relative, such as a parent, sibling or child, with the disease.
Smoking – cigarette smoking can double your risk for developing Crohn’s disease
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – while ibuprofen, naproxen, and other NSAIDs do not cause Crohn's disease, they can lead to bowel inflammation that makes Crohn’s disease worse.
Complications of Crohn’s Disease
Crohn’s disease can cause a number of other health issues, such as:
Intestinal obstruction – over time, Crohn’s disease can thicken the intestinal wall to narrow the intestine, which can block the passage of food and stool through your intestine.
Fistulas – inflammation associated with Crohn’s disease can pass through the walls of your intestine to create tunnels, or fistulas, which are abnormal connections between two parts inside of the body.
Abscesses – inflammation that goes through the intestinal walls can also cause painful and swollen pus-filled pockets of infection, known as abscesses.
Anal fissures – small tears in your anus that may cause pain, itching, or bleeding.
Ulcers – inflammation anywhere along your gastrointestinal tract can cause open sores, or ulcers, in your mouth, intestines, anus, or perineum.
Malnutrition – develops when poor nutrient absorption prevents your body from getting the right balance of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients it needs to function well.
Inflammation – occurring in other areas of your body, such as your eyes, joints, and skin.
Your digestive health provider will likely diagnose Crohn’s disease only after ruling out other causes of your symptoms. A combination of diagnostic tests and procedures may be used, including colonoscopy and endoscopy.
Treatment for Crohn's disease usually involves drug therapy or, in some cases, surgery. There is currently no cure. However, properly managed, long-term remission is possible and many people are able to function well. Treatment for Crohn's typically focuses on managing symptoms, limiting complications and improving patient prognosis.
Frequently Asked Questions about Crohn’s Disease
Our gastroenterology team at Northeast Digestive frequently answer questions about Crohn’s disease. Here are a few of the most commonly asked questions Crohn’s disease and their answers.
What is Crohn’s disease?
Crohn’s disease is a chronic (long-lasting) inflammatory condition that affects the digestive tract. The inflammation damages intestinal tissue and can prevent the body from absorbing important nutrients from food.
How common is Crohn’s disease?
More than a half million people in the United States have Crohn’s disease, according to the National Institutes of Health. Crohn’s disease is becoming more common in the US; researchers have not yet determined the cause of the increased incidence.
Who is most likely to develop Crohn’s disease?
Crohn’s disease is more likely to develop in people between the ages of 20 and 29 who have a family member with the disease; smokers are also more likely to develop Crohn’s disease.
What are the most common symptoms of Crohn’s disease?
The most common symptoms of Crohn’s disease are
- abdominal cramping and pain
- weight loss
How do doctors diagnose Crohn’s disease?
Doctors diagnose Crohn’s disease by reviewing the patient’s symptoms, medical history, and family history, performing a physical examination, and ordering tests. Diagnostic testing may include:
- lab tests
What is the treatment for Crohn’s disease?
The treatment for Crohn’s can vary depending on the severity of disease and symptoms. Once diagnosed, it is important to discuss treatment options with your physician.