Crohn’s Disease: What is it?
Crohn’s, a chronic illness that is thought to affect approximately half a million Americans today, is a disease that can affect any part of one’s digestive tract (which runs from the mouth all the way to the anus). Most commonly, traditional cases find the effects mot concentrated in the small intestine and the beginning of their large intestine. Crohn’s disease is considered to be a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) because of the inflammation it causes in these areas,
What Causes Crohn’s?
Despite the abundance of research conducted on this topic, researchers do not quite understand what initially causes it. Despite this, it has been hypothesized that (for some tertiary reason) an immune system reaction occurs in the body, causing a person’s immune system to attack healthy cells in their body. Essentially, their body is attacking itself – a concept not unique to Crohn’s because it is not the only disease that is thought to do this. As such, Crohn’s is filed under the category “autoimmune disorders”, diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, Graves’ disease, Lupus, Multiple Sclerosis, and others thought to be caused by a similar defect in the immune system.
Another potential cause, or precursor, of Crohn’s disease is believed to be genetics, as autoimmune diseases tend to run in families and are somewhat likely to be inherited if a direct relative related to the patient also has it. Although, studies still show that this is only the case in approximately twenty percent of cases nationwide, it remains a prominent indicator. Ethnicity is also a risk factor, as white people are more likely to be diagnosed with Crohn’s than those of other races.
Areas affected, as mentioned previously, are most often parts of someone’s small intestine, or at the beginning (inception) of their large intestine. Even so, Crohn’s can still spread to other parts of the GI tract (especially if left untreated), and can even affect several areas at the same time. Common symptoms of Crohn’s disease include diarrhea, fever, fatigue, abdominal pain and cramping, blood in stool, mouth sores, reduced appetite, and weight loss.
In more severe cases, fistulas can form. Fistulas are inflamed tunnels into the skin, which often cause pain or drainage near or around the anus. Other signs of a severe case of Crohn’s disease include inflammation of the eyes, skin, or joints, inflammation of the liver or bile ducts, kidney stones, and anemia. If left untreated, those affected are left at risk of bowel obstruction, ulcers, fistulas, anal fissures, malnutrition, and more. A person’s risk of colon cancer increases as well.
Getting a Diagnosis
As mentioned previously, Crohn’s disease is one of many autoimmune diseases, often presenting with similar symptoms to other diagnoses, therefore often being difficult to pinpoint. Nonetheless, it is not impossible. First, the patient’s medical history will be taken into account, and subsequently a number of tests will be run. The physician, if believing it necessary, will also often refer the patient to a specialist, in this case a gastroenterologist. The gastroenterologist will then likely run blood tests, a stool sample, and possibly perform a colonoscopy. A colonoscopy is a procedure which allows one’s doctor to view the patient’s entire colon through a camera, one that is also able to take tissue samples for examination. If inflammation is found in these samples, the diagnosis can often be made. One’s specialist may also run further tests, checking for any other abnormalities or damage to the digestive tract.
How can it be treated?
There are many treatments available that are able to reduce the symptoms originating from Crohn’s disease. The main goal in treatment is to reduce the inflammation in the patient’s digestive tract so as to prevent any further damage and, subsequently, future complications. Unfortunately, there is no cure, but some treatments have proven to be incredibly effective, sometimes even putting the patient into long-term remission.
The main forms of treatment include antibiotics, immune-system suppressants (drugs that inhibit immune system activity), and anti-inflammatory drugs. Others include anti-diarrheals, supplements, and pain-relievers. Although these methods are used to help manage other symptoms of Crohn’s disease, and are not considered to be the solution to reducing inflammation.
A few things that have also proven to be helpful for those with Crohn’s is eliminating dairy from their diet, eating smaller meals, staying hydrated, avoiding caffeine and carbonation, taking multivitamins and probiotics, and sometimes even keeping a food diary to help avoid triggers! Also, it is vital that after being diagnosed, if the person smokes, to stop immediately. Apart from already being an unhealthy and dangerous habit, smoking can greatly worsen a Crohn’s disease patient’s situation. Furthermore, Crohn’s can be both physically and mentally taxing, so it is important to have both a good support system and have a few ways to de-stress.