Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammatory process primarily involving the intestinal tract. Although it may involve any part of the digestive tract from the mouth to the anus, it most commonly affects the last part of the small intestine (ileum) and/or the large intestine (colon and rectum)
Crohn’s disease is a chronic condition and may recur at various times over a lifetime. Some people have long periods of remission, sometimes for years, when they are free of symptoms. There is no way to predict when a remission may occur or when symptoms will return.
What causes Crohn’s disease?
Theories about what causes Crohn’s disease abound, but none has been proven. The most popular theory is that the body’s immune system reacts to a virus or a bacterium by causing ongoing inflammation in the intestine. People with Crohn’s disease tend to have abnormalities of the immune system, but doctors do not know whether these abnormalities are a cause or result of the disease. Crohn’s disease is not caused by emotional distress.
What are the symptoms?
Because Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the intestine, symptoms may vary greatly from patient to patient. Common symptoms include cramping, abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, weight loss, and bloating. Not all patients experience all of these symptoms, and some may experience none of them. Other symptoms may include anal pain or drainage, skin lesions, rectal abscess, fissure, and joint pain (arthritis).
Common Crohn’s symptoms:
- Cramping – abdominal pain
- Weight loss
- Anal pain or drainage
- Skin lesions
- Rectal abscess
- Joint pain
How is Crohn’s disease diagnosed?
A thorough physical exam and a series of tests may be required to diagnose Crohn’s disease. Blood tests may be done to check for anemia, which could indicate bleeding in the intestines. Blood tests may also uncover a high white blood cell count, which is a sign of inflammation somewhere in the body. By testing a stool sample, the doctor can tell if there is bleeding or infection in the intestines. The doctor may do an upper gastrointestinal (GI) series to look at the small intestine. For this test, the patient drinks barium, a chalky solution that coats the lining of the small intestine, before x rays are taken. The barium shows up white on x-ray film, revealing inflammation or other abnormalities in the intestine.
The doctor may also do a colonoscopy. The doctor will be able to see any inflammation or bleeding. During the exam, the doctor may do a biopsy, which involves taking a sample of tissue from the lining of the intestine to view with a microscope.
What are the complications of Crohn’s disease?
The most common complication is blockage of the intestine. Blockage occurs because the disease tends to thicken the intestinal wall with swelling and scar tissue, narrowing the passage. Crohn’s disease may also cause sores, or ulcers, that tunnel through the affected area into surrounding tissues such as the bladder, vagina, or skin. The areas around the anus and rectum are often involved. The tunnels, called fistulas, are a common complication and often become infected. Sometimes fistulas can be treated with medicine, but in some cases they may require surgery.
Nutritional complications are common in Crohn’s disease. Deficiencies of proteins, calories, and vitamins are well documented in Crohn’s disease. These deficiencies may be caused by inadequate dietary intake, intestinal loss of protein, or poor absorption (malabsorption). Other complications associated with Crohn’s disease include arthritis, skin problems, inflammation in the eyes or mouth, kidney stones, gallstones, or other diseases of the liver and biliary system. Some of these problems resolve during treatment for disease in the digestive system, but some must be treated separately.
What is the treatment for Crohn’s disease?
Treatment for Crohn’s disease depends on the location and severity of disease, complications, and response to previous treatment. The goals of treatment are to control inflammation, correct nutritional deficiencies, and relieve symptoms like abdominal pain, diarrhea, and rectal bleeding. Treatment may include drugs, nutrition supplements, surgery, or a combination of these options. At this time, treatment can help control the disease, but there is no cure.
Some people have long periods of remission, sometimes years, when they are free of symptoms. However, the disease usually recurs at various times over a person’s lifetime. This changing pattern of the disease means one cannot always tell when a treatment has helped. Predicting when a remission may occur or when symptoms will return is not possible.
Most people are first treated with drugs containing mesalamine, a substance that helps control inflammation. Sulfasalazine is the most commonly used of these drugs. Patients who do not benefit from it or who cannot tolerate it may be put on other mesalamine-containing drugs, generally known as 5-ASA agents, such as Asacol, Dipentum, or Pentasa. Possible side effects of mesalamine preparations include nausea, vomiting, heartburn, diarrhea, and headache.
Some patients take corticosteroids to control inflammation. These drugs are the most effective for active Crohn’s disease, but they can cause serious side effects, including greater susceptibility to infection.
Drugs that suppress the immune system are also used to treat Crohn’s disease. Most commonly prescribed are 6-mercaptopurine and a related drug, azathioprine. Immunosuppressive agents work by blocking the immune reaction that contributes to inflammation. These drugs may cause side effects like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea and may lower a person’s resistance to infection. When patients are treated with a combination of corticosteroids and immunosuppressive drugs, the dose of corticosteriods can eventually be lowered. Some studies suggest that immunosuppressive drugs may enhance the effectiveness of corticosteroids.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the drug infliximab (brand name, Remicade) for the treatment of moderate to severe Crohn’s disease that does not respond to standard therapies (mesalamine substances, corticosteroids, immunosuppressive agents) and for the treatment of open, draining fistulas. Infliximab, the first treatment approved specifically for Crohn’s disease, is an anti-tumor necrosis factor (TNF) substance. TNF is a protein produced by the immune system that may cause the inflammation associated with Crohn’s disease. Anti-TNF removes TNF from the bloodstream before it reaches the intestines, thereby preventing inflammation. Investigators will continue to study patients taking infliximab to determine its long-term safety and efficacy.
Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine caused by stricture, fistulas, or prior surgery. For this common problem, the doctor may prescribe one or more of the following antibiotics: ampicillin, sulfonamide, cephalosporin, tetracycline, or metronidazole.
Surgery to remove part of the intestine can help Crohn’s disease but cannot cure it. The inflammation tends to return next to the area of intestine that has been removed. Many Crohn’s disease patients require surgery, either to relieve symptoms that do not respond to medical therapy or to correct complications such as blockage, perforation, abscess, or bleeding in the intestine.
Some people who have Crohn’s disease in the large intestine need to have their entire colon removed in an operation called colectomy. A small opening is made in the front of the abdominal wall, and the tip of the ileum is brought to the skin’s surface. This opening, called a stoma, is where waste exits the body. The stoma is about the size of a quarter and is usually located in the right lower part of the abdomen near the beltline. A pouch is worn over the opening to collect waste, and the patient empties the pouch as needed. The majority of colectomy patients go on to live normal, active lives.
People with Crohn’s disease may feel well and be free of symptoms for substantial spans of time when their disease is not active. Despite the need to take medication for long periods of time and occasional hospitalizations, most people with Crohn’s disease are able to hold jobs, raise families, and function successfully at home and in society.
Can diet control Crohn’s disease?
No special diet has been proven effective for preventing or treating this disease. Some people find their symptoms are made worse by milk, alcohol, hot spices, or fiber. People are encouraged to follow a nutritious diet and avoid any foods that seem to worsen symptoms. But there are no consistent rules.
People should take vitamin supplements only on their doctor’s advice.
Is pregnancy safe for women with Crohn’s disease?
Research has shown that the course of pregnancy and delivery is usually not impaired in women with Crohn’s disease. Even so, women with Crohn’s disease should discuss the matter with their doctors before pregnancy. Most children born to women with Crohn’s disease are unaffected. Children who do get the disease are sometimes more severely affected than adults, with slowed growth and delayed sexual development in some cases.
Hope Through Research
Researchers continue to look for more effective treatments.