Crohn’s disease is a type of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) that leads to inflammation in the digestive system. Crohn’s disease can affect the entire digestive tract from the mouth to the anus, but the disease most commonly affects the end of the small intestine and the colon.
What Causes Crohn’s Disease?
While the exact cause of this disease is unknown, recent research suggests that Crohn’s disease may be caused by increased activity of the immune system. This activity is possibly triggered by a certain type of bacteria or virus. It then leads to inflammation and other symptoms in the digestive tract.
It is also likely that environmental factors have a role in development of IBD or can worsen inflammation, such as cigarette smoking, certain medications (NSAIDs), and diet. Lastly, certain factors that you can’t control, such as your age, ethnicity, and family history increase your risk of IBD.
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What are the Symptoms of Crohn’s Disease?
Symptoms of Crohn’s disease can vary widely from patient to patient. Common symptoms include the following:
- Chronic diarrhea, often including blood, mucus, or pus
- Weight loss
- Abdominal pain or tenderness
- A feeling of tightness or fullness in the abdomen
- Rectal bleeding
Several complications are associated with Crohn’s disease, including:
- Intestinal blockages or narrowing caused by scar tissue
- Fistulas – abnormal connections between two parts of the body, including the intestine or skin
- Abscesses – collections of pus that can lead to fevers
- Colon Cancer – caused by chronic inflammation of the colon
Patients with Crohn’s disease can also experience symptoms outside of the digestive system, such as inflammation of joints leading to pain and swelling, inflammation of the eyes leading to redness, pain, and changes in vision, and liver and kidney complications.
All of these symptoms can last days, weeks or even months, followed by long periods of remission.
How is Crohn’s Disease Diagnosed?
Crohn’s disease is typically diagnosed by a gastroenterologist, a physician who specializes in the function and diseases of the digestive tract. Diagnosing Crohn’s disease can be complex and challenging, because it shares so many symptoms with other diseases, particularly other forms of IBD like ulcerative colitis.
Because of this complexity, there is no single test that can diagnose Crohn’s disease.
Your physician will likely run several of a number of lab tests:
- Blood count tests
- C-reactive protein tests
- An electrolyte panel
- Iron and B12 level tests
- Liver function tests
You will likely also undergo a number of imaging studies and exams of the digestive tract that will help your physician to determine the location of inflammation within the body:
- Capsule endoscopy
- CT Scan
These tests will help your physician diagnose your illness and determine a relevant therapy.
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How is Crohn’s Disease Treated?
Although there is no cure for Crohn’s disease, there are many treatments that can help people manage their symptoms and live a good, quality life. There is no one treatment that helps every patient, so treatment responses are highly individualized. Treatment goals are to reduce inflammation, improve long-term health, and, in the best cases, guide patients toward long-term remission.
Your physician may start by suggesting that you make changes in your diet, focusing on low fiber or low-residue foods. They may also suggest one or more of the following medications:
- Anti-inflammatory drugs
- Immune system suppressors
- Over the counter medications that treat symptoms, like anti-diarrheals and vitamin supplements
If these treatments do not relieve your inflammation and the disease continues to progress or if your disease is very severe to begin with, surgery may be an option to remove unhealthy tissue to help your digestive system operate well again.
With proper treatment, it’s possible for people with Crohn’s disease to lead full and healthy lives.
For more information about treatment options, make an appointment at the UPMC Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center.
About Digestive Disorders
The UPMC Digestive Disorders Center cares for a wide range of gastrointestinal conditions and diseases, from diagnosis to treatment. Upon referral from your physician, we coordinate your testing and treatment. If you have a complicated condition, we can refer you to one of UPMC’s digestive health centers of excellence. Most of our office visits and outpatient procedures take place at UPMC Presbyterian or UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital in Oakland. We also provide inpatient care at UPMC Montefiore or UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland.