What Is Crohn’s Disease?

Crohn’s disease is one of the conditions belonging to the group known as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). Crohn’s disease affects approximately half a million Americans and is a condition that causes chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. The doctor who first described this eponymous disease in 1932, Dr. Burrill B. Crohn, worked with two colleagues on establishing the condition, Dr. Leon Ginzburg and Dr Gordon D Oppenheimer.

It is not uncommon to hear the phrase “Crohn’s and Colitis” used in medical articles and by professionals. The seeming interchangeability of these two conditions stems from both of them being categorized as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). They are different though. Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis have similar symptoms, but they affect different parts of the gastrointestinal tract.

Since Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis have similar symptoms and are treated somewhat similarly when located in the colon, it is not uncommon to have the diagnosis changed from one to the other, as the disease evolves. Sometimes there are characteristic features that give a definite diagnosis of Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis.

It is important to know that “colitis” means inflammation of the colon (large intestine). This may occur due to infections, ischemia or lack of blood supply in some conditions, or from inflammation due to Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis. When Crohn’s is located in the colon, it is called Crohn’s colitis, not to be confused with ulcerative colitis. So do not be misled, especially by friends or family members, when they say they had “colitis” but mean something entirely different, especially if it was short-lived and did not require treatment with medications long term. Some people confuse IBD with “spastic colitis” which is the other name of IBS- irritable bowel syndrome. Others may think of diverticulitis as colitis, but again, that is not a long term condition.

The locations most commonly affected by Crohn’s disease are the end of the small bowel (the ileum) and the beginning of the colon. Crohn’s can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract from the mouth to the anus, although it is much less frequently seen in these places. Ulcerative colitis occurs exclusively in the colon, alternatively called the large intestine. It is also worth noting that ulcerative colitis only affects the innermost lining of the colon, whereas Crohn’s can impact the full thickness of the gastrointestinal wall. Another differentiation between Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis is that Crohn’s can leave unaffected sections between inflamed areas of the intestinal walls. Ulcerative colitis occurs continuously and doesn’t skip around on the walls of the intestines.

Symptoms of Crohn’s Disease

Crohn’s disease symptoms can range from mild to severe and are often different from patient to patient. Also, Crohn’s disease can affect varied and multiple parts of the GI tract, depending on the individual. The symptoms also change in some patients over time, depending on the location or severity of the disease.

There are many symptoms that are commonly associated with Crohn’s, and some of the more frequently seen are:

Associated with GI tract inflammation:

Symptoms related to inflammation of the GI tract:

  • Frequent Diarrhea
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Intense need for bowel movements
  • Abdominal cramping and pain
  • Feeling that bowels aren’t completely emptied after bowel movement
  • Constipation (with possible further complication of bowel obstruction)

Common symptoms, frequently seen with IBD, outside the digestive tract:

  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite, resulting in weight loss
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Night sweats
  • Loss of normal menstrual cycle
  • Delayed growth and development (for younger Crohn’s patients)

The signs and symptoms of Crohn’s can be characteristics of other problems as well. So, even if you have some of the symptoms of Crohn’s listed above, you should still schedule an appointment for professional testing performed by your board-certified gastroenterologist in order to obtain a proper diagnosis.

The diagnosis of Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis is made based on symptoms, tests such as colonoscopy to examine the lining of the small and large intestines, sometimes requiring imaging studies, or blood work, as well as the microscopic examination of samples obtained from the different parts of the digestive tract.

As a chronic disease, individuals with Crohn’s will experience bouts of inflammation followed by remission periods of time where the disease and the symptoms “go dormant.” Some people can have very long periods of remission, even for years. There is no reliable way of predicting when symptoms of Crohn’s will return.

Once diagnosed with Crohn’s, even if you are feeling well, it is important to continue treatment, as there is a risk of disease relapsing with more severe symptoms that may be difficult to control later. If you are compliant with treatment, then you can control the disease. The majority of patients are well controlled on appropriate mediations without surgery these days and have a good quality of life without any limitations due to the disease. If you are not compliant with treatment, the disease can control you.

The exact causes of Crohn’s disease are unknown. Theories suggest that Crohn’s may be caused by an abnormal immunologic response in the body. Various stimuli can cause the disease to appear, either initially or recurrent. Some of the common triggers for Crohn’s disease are thought to be a combination of genetic influences and/or environmental factors (bacteria in the intestines). There is a higher risk of developing IBD if there is a family history but other factors also play a role in disease development.

How do I know?

If you have experienced some or many of the symptoms listed above and you feel that you may need an evaluation, please ask to be seen by a specialist. Gastroenterologists are doctors that specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of the gastrointestinal tract, and they are better trained and experienced in effectively treating patients for IBD, whether Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, than any other type of doctor. In order to diagnose Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, your gastroenterologist will run some tests that may include blood work, stool tests, barium x-rays, CT scans, or endoscopic tests.

The physicians at Gastroenterology Associates have been treating IBD patients in the capital region since 1977. Our gastroenterologists are all board-certified which means that they subscribe to a significantly higher standard in their practice of medicine and in maintaining their knowledge on current advancements in treatments and procedures. Don’t be a prisoner to your symptoms or illnesses any longer. Get a firm diagnosis from one of our compassionate and sincere gastroenterologists and start treating the problems, not just symptoms. Schedule an appointment by calling us at 225.927.1190 or by submitting a request through the button below.