For many people battling Crohn’s disease, Crohn’s is the reason for their gastrointestinal distress.
Abdominal pain, diarrhea, fatigue, and weight loss are all common symptoms.
But, what exactly is Crohn’s disease?
We dive into the disease first described by Dr. Burrill B. Crohn, along with colleagues Dr. Leon Ginzburg and Dr. Gordon D. Oppenheimer, in 1932.
What is Crohn’s disease?
Crohn’s disease is a chronic disease that causes inflammation and irritation of the intestinal tract. It is most common for Crohn’s to affect the end of the small intestine (the ileum) and the beginning of the colon. However, it is possible for the disease to impact any part of the gastrointestinal tract (GI), from the mouth to the anus.
When the GI tract becomes inflamed or damaged, it does not properly perform its 3 main functions:
- Digestion of food
- Absorption of nutrients
- Elimination of waste
As the inflammation caused by Crohn’s spreads into layers of bowel tissue, the disease can become debilitating, painful, and may lead to life-threatening complications.
Symptoms of Crohn’s often develop gradually, and then become worse over time. It is possible to have periods of remissions that last for weeks or years.
Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disorder (IBD), which is a broad category of disorders made up of Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, microscopic colitis, and other diseases. Crohn’s is unique because it may appear in “patches,” impacting some portions of the GI tract but not others. And, Crohn’s can impact the entire thickness of the bowel wall.
What causes Crohn’s disease?
According to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA), the causes of Crohn’s are “not well understood.” In general, IBD is caused by an interaction of three factors:
- Genetic predisposition
- Immune system issues resulting in inflammation
- Environmental factors
What are the symptoms of Crohn’s disease?
Cases of Crohn’s can range from mild to severe, and many people receive a diagnosis when the disease is most active. Disease activity can vary over time as Crohn’s can impact various portions of the GI tract. According to the CCFA, around 50% of people will be in remission, or have mild symptoms, over the next 5 years as a result of medical/surgical treatment.
Common symptoms of Crohn’s disease include:
- Diarrhea – ongoing and does not respond to over-the-counter medications
- Abdominal pain – including discomfort, pain, nausea, and vomiting
- Blood in the stool
- Mouth sores
- Reduced appetite or unexplained weight loss
Contact a doctor if you experience these symptoms or have consistent changes in your bowel habits. Recognition of symptoms is crucial as they may be a sign of advanced complications.
Common complications of Crohn’s disease
- Ulcers on the intestine wall that extend and cause tunnels to other parts of the intestine, the skin, or other organs
- Narrowing of the intestine – caused by scarring
- Can lead to intestinal blockage
- A collection of pus that has built up in the tissue of the body
- Sustained inflammation may weaken the organ walls so much that a hole forms
Malabsorption and malnutrition
- Failure of the body to properly process foods can cause vitamin and mineral deficiency
Who gets Crohn’s disease?
There are upwards of 780,000 Americans with Crohn’s disease. The incidence of Crohn’s is about 10.7 cases per 100,000 people.
Each year, there are approximately 33,000 new cases. Most people diagnosed are between the ages of 15 and 35.
IBD generally affects men and women equally. Though, particularly later in life, men are more likely to be diagnosed with ulcerative colitis – another form of IBD.
IBD is mainly found:
- in developed countries
- more commonly in urban areas
- in northern climates
The highest incidence of Crohn’s disease is reported in Canada.
Racial and ethnic differences
There is limited data on the differences in diagnosis and disease impact upon people of various racial or ethnic backgrounds. One small study that looked into race differences found slight differences in age-of-onset. But, it noted that the “management of IBD is similar among race groups.”
Additional research and data from the Multicenter African American IBD Study found some differences in the area of the GI tract impacted. As compared to Caucasians, African Americans with Crohn’s were more likely to be impacted in the colon or upper GI tract (esophagus, stomach, small intestine).