What to know about Crohn's disease

Just as cancer, diabetes or heart disease can consume a person’s everyday life, so can the diagnosis of Crohn’s disease. Although it may not be as well-known, more than 700,000 Americans are affected by Crohn’s disease. Understanding Crohn’s disease is an essential key to navigating the uncertainty that comes with a new diagnosis.

A type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Crohn’s disease can irritate and inflame any part of your digestive tract—from intake to output. “It is a chronic illness with no cure, but thankfully treatment can lead to remission,” says Deborah Lindahl, NP-C, Southeast Georgia Physician Associates-Gastroenterology. “The disease can affect anyone at any age, but it has greater likelihood to develop in people who are in their 20s or 30s, experience an autoimmune reaction, have a parent, sibling or other relative with IBD or smoke cigarettes.”

Other factors that might slightly increase the risk of developing Crohn’s disease include:

  • Consuming a high-fat diet.
  • Taking antibiotics, birth control pills or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)—such as aspirin or ibuprofen.

Know the signs and symptoms

Depending where along your digestive tract Crohn’s disease strikes and the inflammation’s severity, you might develop common signs and symptoms, such as abdominal pain or cramping, diarrhea or weight loss.

In addition, you might experience:

  • Anemia
  • Appetite loss
  • Eye redness or pain
  • Fever
  • Joint soreness or pain
  • Nausea
  • Red, tender skin bumps

Get the diagnosis and treatment you need

It’s important to see your primary care provider if you think you might have Crohn’s disease so your provider can rule out other possible causes for your signs and symptoms. “The first step in diagnosing Crohn’s disease is discovering where along your intestinal tract the inflammation and irritation are occurring,” explains Lindahl.

After taking a medical history and conducting a physical exam, your health care provider might schedule:

  • Lab tests (blood and stool)
  • MRI or CT scans
  • Intestinal endoscopy procedures, such as a colonoscopy
  • An upper GI series

With a proper diagnosis, your provider can prescribe the best treatment for your Crohn’s disease symptoms and complications. Possible complications of the disease include:

  • Abscesses—infected pockets of pus causing pain and swelling
  • Anal fissures—small tears that might bleed, itch or cause pain
  • Colon cancer if Crohn’s disease is in the large intestine
  • Fistulas—abnormal tunnels between organs that can be infected
  • Intestinal obstruction or bowel blockage
  • Malnutrition from malabsorption issues
  • Ulcers

“Treatments for Crohn’s disease and its complications range from special diets and nutritional supplements to medications and surgery. By decreasing intestinal inflammation, preventing symptom outbreaks and replenishing nutrients, you increase your chances of keeping Crohn’s disease in remission,” says Lindahl.

Keeping a healthy lifestyle

Research shows that when people exercise, muscles release anti-inflammatory chemicals that reduce gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms. “Activity also reduces musculoskeletal complications of Crohn’s, including bone loss, joint pain, and posture issues, while easing stress,” says Lindahl. “Although food doesn’t cause Crohn’s disease, it can trigger flares. Because the disease can involve different areas of the GI tract in different people, diet plans should be patient specific,” she adds.

Keeping follow up visits

Crohn’s disease requires frequent follow up visits to assess how your current treatment is effecting or healing your gastrointestinal tract.

Patients experiencing digestive issues should talk with their health care provider about the possibility of Crohn’s disease. To find a physician, call 855-ASK-SGHS (855-275-7447) or visit sghs.org.