Crohn's Disease

By Chelle Cordero

November 14, 2012 5 min read

Crohn's disease is a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract. It belongs to a group of conditions known as inflammatory bowel diseases, or IBDs. Ten percent, or 140,000, of the estimated 1.4 million Americans who suffer from IBD are younger than 18. Crohn's most commonly affects the end of the small bowel (the ileum) and the beginning of the colon, but it can also affect any part of the gastrointestinal, or GI, tract, from the mouth to the anus. Symptoms can vary, low energy and fatigue are very common.

Crohn's disease may affect as many as 700,000 Americans. Men and women are equally likely to be affected, and while the disease can occur at any age, Crohn's is more prevalent among adolescents and young adults between the ages of 15 and 35. IBD, which has been detected in infants as young as 18 months, can be particularly hard to diagnose in children. An estimated two-thirds to three-quarters of children with Crohn's disease will require one or more operations in their lifetime.

The causes of Crohn's disease are not well understood. Diet and stress may aggravate Crohn's disease, but they do not cause the disease on their own. Recent research suggests hereditary, genetics and even environmental factors contribute to its development. The principal drugs used to treat Crohn's disease and colitis are 5-ASA agents (e.g. sulfasalazine or mesalamine) and corticosteroids (e.g., prednisone).

The GI tract normally contains harmless bacteria, many of which aid in digestion. The immune system usually attacks and kills foreign invaders, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microorganisms. Under normal circumstances, the harmless bacteria in the intestines are protected from such an attack. In people with IBD, these bacteria are mistaken for harmful invaders and the immune system mounts a response. Cells travel out of the blood to the intestines and produce inflammation (a normal immune system response). However, the inflammation does not subside, leading to chronic inflammation, ulceration, thickening of the intestinal wall, and eventually causing patient symptoms. There is no cure for Crohn's disease; surgery may help control symptoms or treat complications, but relapses are common.

Crohn's tends to run in families, so if you or a close relative have the disease, your family members have a significantly increased chance of developing Crohn's. Studies have shown that 5 to 20 percent of affected individuals have a first-degree relative -- parent, child or sibling -- with one of the diseases. The risk is greater with Crohn's disease than ulcerative colitis. The risk is also substantially higher when both parents have IBD. The disease is most common among people of eastern European backgrounds, including Jews of European descent. In recent years, an increasing number of cases have been reported among African American populations.

The environment in which you live also appears to play a role. Crohn's is more common in developed countries rather than under-developed countries, in urban rather than rural areas, and in northern rather than southern climates.

One mom in New York's lower Hudson Valley, whose teenage daughter was recently diagnosed with Crohn's, was directed to the Maria Fareri Children's Hospital. She was directed to The Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America for both information and support. CCFA (http://www.ccfa.org) provides educational programs for patients, physicians, and the public and hundreds of active support groups. For requests for free brochures about IBD and Crohn's as well as information about CCFA, call 888-MY-GUT-PAIN. Your doctor can help you determine which local hospitals are best equipped to deal with the disease.

The most telltale symptoms of Crohn's disease manifest due to inflammation of the GI tract or IBD.

Symptoms related to inflammation of the GI tract:

--Persistent diarrhea

--Rectal bleeding

--Urgent need to move bowels

--Abdominal cramps and pain

--Sensation of incomplete evacuation

--Constipation (can lead to bowel obstruction)

General symptoms that may also be associated with IBD:

--Fever

--Loss of appetite

--Weight loss

--Fatigue

--Night sweats

--Loss of normal menstrual cycle

With the right treatment and a healthy diet, it is possible to live a full, happy and productive life with Crohn's. For the best prognosis, speak with your doctor, contact CCFA and get support from local chapters.

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