More than 1.6 million Americans suffer from a serious gastrointestinal disorder with no known cure — Crohn Syndrome, commonly known as Crohn’s disease. This disorder can be fatal if left untreated, so it is important to understand the signs and symptoms.
Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease in which the body treats harmless bacteria, virus or food in the gut as foreign invaders, launching an abnormal response of the immune system against them. This response leads to chronic inflammation of the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. The GI tract swells and becomes raw, causing uncomfortable or painful symptoms, problems with digestion and difficulty absorbing nutrients. The disease can affect any part of the GI tract, but it is most common in the small and large intestine.
Many aspects of Crohn’s disease are still unknown, but it is believed to be caused by genetic and environmental factors. This disease is most common in those younger than age 35, but it can occur at any age. Those with a family history are more than twice as likely to develop Crohn’s.
The disease is most common among people of eastern European backgrounds, and Jewish people of European descent. Environmental factors like smoking and taking certain medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, acne medications, antibiotics and oral contraceptives may also raise the likelihood of developing Crohn’s disease.
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Initial symptoms may include abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss, joint pain and rash. Mild symptoms include abdominal cramps, occasional diarrhea and fatigue. Moderate Crohn’s disease brings extreme weight loss, cramps, pain, low blood count, anemia, frequent diarrhea and malnutrition. In severe cases, Crohn’s can cause fistula formation, in which inflammation eats through the intestinal wall. Crohn’s can also affect fertility in women.
Those presenting symptoms should visit their primary care physician, who will refer patients to a gastroenterologist. The GI doctor will conduct a colonoscopy to test for Crohn’s disease. Tests will help rule out other bowel diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis or celiac disease. The doctor may also conduct a biopsy, blood test, stool sample, CT scan or MRI of the GI tract to confirm the diagnosis and locate the inflammation site.
While there is no cure for Crohn’s disease, it can usually be controlled with clinical treatments. Doctors will prescribe different drug therapies based on the inflammatory phase of the disease. More potent therapies may be prescribed during acute phases versus maintenance phases.
Current treatment options include biologic therapies, infusions or injections that can effectively neutralize inflammation, corticosteroids, oral therapies that reduce acute inflammation, and immunomodulators, which help to suppress the immune response chronically. In severe cases, surgery may be required to remove inflamed tissue.
Dr. June Yong is with KentuckyOne Health Gastroenterology Associates.