Crohn's Disease: Symptoms and Treatment

Approximately 700,000 Americans have Crohn’s disease, a chronic but manageable inflammatory bowel disease.

Young woman with stomachache sitting on her bed
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Crohn's disease belongs to a group of conditions called inflammatory bowel disease. Approximately 700,000 Americans have Crohn's disease, which is a life-long disease. Its main symptom is inflammation. When tissue is inflamed, it turns red and is swollen and painful. Inflamed tissue cannot perform its normal function. Crohn's disease can affect any part of the digestive system, and it can occur anywhere from the mouth to the anus. Most cases affect the end of the small intestine and the beginning of the colon. Stomach pain and diarrhea are the main symptoms; some people have diarrhea up to 20 times a day. Rectal bleeding is another symptom. Other symptoms include the urgent need to move your bowels. Some patients have the feeling of an incomplete bowel movement.

Your doctor will perform one or more tests to determine whether you are suffering from Crohn's disease. Colonoscopy is the most common test. This test is used to look inside your rectum, colon and part of the small intestine. A tissue sample will be taken. This will help to determine if you have some other disease. Since bleeding is one of the symptoms, blood tests will be done. This is to find out if bleeding has caused a low blood count. Laboratory tests can also confirm that there is inflammation.

What Causes Crohn's Disease?

The body's natural defense system is called the immune system. This system attacks harmful bacteria. Our intestines are full of harmless bacteria. These bacteria help digestion. Researchers believe the immune system attacks these harmless intestinal bacteria. These attacks cause inflammation. There is a genetic link. Crohn's disease runs in families. There are other factors that trigger attacks. For example, cigarette smoking makes symptoms worse. People with the disease often have their first attack between ages 13 and 30.

Crohn's disease is more common in certain groups. For example, people of Eastern European Jewish descent are more likely to get the disease than other groups.

Managing Symptoms of Crohn's Disease

  • Some things may make your Crohn's disease worse. These are called triggers. You should keep a diary and write down what you were doing before your symptoms got worse. If you find something worsens your symptoms, avoid this trigger. Certain foods are known to trigger an attack. These include fatty foods, spicy foods, alcohol and milk. Keeping a food diary helps identify foods that make your symptoms worse. Soft, bland foods cause less discomfort.
  • Crohn's disease makes it hard for your body to absorb nutrients from food. High-calorie and high-protein foods help you get the nutrients you need. Eating two or three snacks during the day also helps. If you have diarrhea, drink plenty of fluids. This prevents dehydration. If you smoke, you should stop. Smokers are more likely to have surgery than non-smokers.
  • It's important to recognize signs that the disease has worsened. Call your doctor if you are vomiting, feel faint, have a weak pulse or experience fever or chills. If you are pregnant or plan to get pregnant, discuss this with your doctor. Hormonal changes can worsen symptoms.
  • Having Crohn's disease can be stressful. Eating well, getting enough rest and learning to relax decreases stress. Seek support from families and friends. Severe stress may require counseling or medication.
  • What Are the Treatments?

    There is no cure for Crohn's disease. Without treatment, complications will occur. These include ulcers, blockage of the intestine, low blood count, infection and tissue damage. Tissue damage includes "tunnels" in the intestine. Ulcers are deep sores in the digestive tissue.

    The goal of treatment is to reduce symptoms. These include stomach pain and diarrhea. Another goal of treatment is to reduce inflammation. Treatment may include medication, surgery, and dietary changes. Several medications are used to prevent the immune system from attacking harmless bacteria. They also reduce inflammation. Your doctor will select one or more medications. This depends on the area affected. Other medications are used to heal tissue damage and complications. Some complications clear up during treatment for Crohn's disease, and some require other treatments.