What is Crohn's Disease?

Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a lifelong condition where parts of the digestive system have inflammation.1 It was coined Crohn’s disease due to Dr Burrill B. Crohn, who first described the disease in 1932 along with 2 of his colleagues.2 

How Do You Get Crohn’s Disease?

Anyone can develop Crohn’s disease; unlike IBS, there’s no significant difference in the statistics regarding gender, so men and women are equally likely to have Crohn’s disease.2 There are currently just over 115,000 people in the UK diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, making it a relatively rare condition compared to other gastrointestinal diseases.3

Predisposition to Crohn’s disease can be inherited from your parents through your genes. This means that if you have a blood relative with Crohn’s disease, you have a higher chance of developing it yourself.3 

A malfunctioning immune system could also be responsible for the development of Crohn’s disease. It is suggested that a virus or bacteria entering your body may trigger Crohn’s disease, but scientists are still unsure of which virus or bacteria could be responsible.4

If your immune system is malfunctioning when attempting to fight off this foreign body, it can also attack the cells in the digestive tract.4

What are the Symptoms of Crohn’s Disease?

The symptoms of Crohn's disease can vary from person to person and can constantly appear or flare up every few weeks or months. Long periods without symptoms of Crohn’s are referred to as remission. As Crohn’s is a lifelong condition, flare-ups can return.3 

Symptoms of Crohn’s Disease include:1,4

  • Diarrhoea
  • Stomach aches
  • Cramps
  • Blood in your stool
  • Fatigue
  • Weight Loss 
  • Inflammation of skin, eyes and joints
  • Inflammation of the liver or bile ducts
  • Anemia
  • Kidney Stones
  • Mouth Sores
  • Leakage or drainage near or around the anus

The inflammation in the digestive tract caused by Crohn’s disease usually moves into the deep layers of the bowel. This can be painful and debilitating for some sufferers.

Symptoms usually appear gradually, but they can appear suddenly without warning. This can be limiting for those with Crohn’s in their daily life.4

Symptoms usually start in adolescence or early adulthood but can appear at any age.1 For children, Crohn’s disease can limit their growth or sexual development.4

The symptoms of Crohn’s disease can present similarly to many other gastrointestinal issues, so it’s essential to get a diagnosis to ensure you receive the correct treatment for your condition.

Complications Associated with Crohn’s Disease

Unfortunately, having Crohn’s disease can lead to further complications. Here are some of the risks:4

Crohn’s can cause the bowel to scar and narrow through the thickness of the intestinal wall. This is called bowel obstruction. This can block the flow of digestive contents and require surgery to remove the affected part of the bowel.

Ulcers can occur when chronic inflammation leads to open sores in your digestive tract. They can appear anywhere but are most likely found in the mouth, anus and genital area. Blood clots in veins and arteries are also a risk for those with Crohn’s disease.

For some, these ulcers can extend completely through the intestinal wall. This is referred to as a fistula. They are most commonly located near the anus.

Fistulas can limit your bowel's ability to absorb nutrients from food sources. If a fistula becomes infected, it may form an abscess, which is life-threatening if not treated.

An Anal fissure can occur due to Crohn’s disease. This is a small tear in the tissue that lines the anus or in the skin around the anus. They can cause painful bowel movements and lead to perianal fistulas.

Malnutrition is another complication associated with Crohn’s disease. The uncomfortable bowel symptoms that occur due to Crohn’s can make it difficult to eat and for your digestive system to absorb nutrients. This can cause anaemia or vitamin B-12 deficiency.

The risk of colon cancer increases if you have Crohn’s disease. It is suggested that those with Crohn’s should talk to their doctor about having frequent colonoscopies to keep an eye on their colon.

Osteoporosis, arthritis, gallbladder and liver disease are other complications associated with Crohn’s disease. 

What Are The Treatment Options For Crohn's Disease?

Although there is no cure for Crohn’s disease, there are treatment options to make the condition more bearable. The usual goal for treatment is to reduce the inflammation causing your symptoms or attempt to put you in long-term remission if possible.

Anti-inflammatory drugs such as corticosteroids can be prescribed to help reduce inflammation in the body. They can be used only short term and will not work for everybody. Immune system suppressors are used to reducing inflammation caused by your immune system. These methods can be used simultaneously.5

Medication for Crohn’s can also increase risk factors by blocking the function of the immune system. This comes with a small risk of developing lymphoma and skin cancers and an increased risk of infection.

The medication corticosteroid can be associated with a risk of developing osteoporosis, bone fractures, cataracts, glaucoma, diabetes and high blood pressure to name a few.4

Antibiotics can reduce the drainage caused by fistulas and abscesses or heal them for some people.5 It is crucial to limit antibiotic use, though, as antibiotics cannot tell the difference between good and bad bacteria, so they attack them all. This can cause new issues in the digestive tract and, therefore, all over the body.6

Anti-diarrhoea medication that contains a fibre supplement can help to relieve diarrhoea caused by Crohn’s disease. Pain medication can also be taken to control pain but can also make symptoms worse, so it must be used with caution. Vitamins and supplements may also be taken if you are not absorbing enough nutrients.5

Nutrition therapy can be used for severe cases of Crohn’s where you are not receiving enough nutrients. A special diet by mouth or a feeding tube can improve your overall nutritional status and allow the bowel to rest, reducing inflammation short term.5

If none of these treatments has successfully treated or relieved symptoms, surgery may be the only option. Almost half of those with Crohn’s require at least one surgery.5

Final Thoughts

Crohn’s disease can be debilitating and life-changing for those that suffer from it. There are treatment options, but there is no “one size fits all” regarding Crohn’s. It is a try-and-try-again process to find what works best for you.

Always speak to your doctor if you suspect Crohn’s disease to give yourself the best chance of long-term remission.

Related content: What is Leaky Gut?


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