Recently, I posted about a disease called Ulcerative colitis, and briefly mentioned the related disease Crohn’s disease. Though related, the two are separate processes and deserve their own separate discussions.
Though these two diseases are part of the same group of diseases (Inflammatory Bowel Disease), each has its own symptoms, presentations, and complications. They are, however, treated similarly and by the same doctors.
Crohn’s disease is in part a result of inflammation gone haywire, and of “autoimmune response,” in which the body confuses itself for an intruder, such as a virus or infection. The body fails to recognize some of its own cells and then tries to destroy these cells, thinking that since they are not familiar, they must be invasive. In Crohn’s this “intruder” is the gut, and unlike ulcerative colitis which only involves the colon, Crohn’s can involve any part of the gut, from the mouth to the rectum. The inflammation can affect more than just the gut since this is a systemic process (involving the whole body). Thus, those affected may develop issues with the joints, eyes, and even the skin. Crohn’s can be a scary disease, especially since it never fully goes away. It can be controlled in many people, but therapies are not perfect. Without therapy, people can develop strictures (narrowing of the gut that may cause blockages), fistulas (paths between organs that do not usually go together), bleeding, pain, and infections, so avoiding treatment is not really a good option.
So, who gets Crohn’s disease, and how would you know to suspect it? The disease tends to affect both men and women, usually starting in the teenage or young adult years (around 15-35), though it can develop at any time. Stress can aggravate the disease, but it is still not known precisely why it develops in the first place. It does tend to run in families, and is more common in people of Eastern European descent, but it affects people from all over the world as well. Additionally, it is found much more commonly in developed countries.
Some symptoms to be aware of may include diarrhea that does not improve, blood in the stool, feeling an urgent need to move your bowels, feeling like you still need to go once done, abdominal pain/cramping, or even persistent constipation, especially with small thin caliber stools (many of my patients describe them being like thin snakes). Many of these patients also lose weight, and may have poor appetites as well.
You cannot prevent Crohn’s disease, and if you are concerned you may have it, you should certainly tell a doctor, as it will not improve on its own. You can find more helpful information through the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, linked below.