What is Crohn’s Disease?

Extreme fatigue all day, stabbing abdominal pain, cramping, and constant diarrhea. You may wince at the thought of these symptoms, especially in conjunction with one another, but that is the daily reality of the many experiencing a flare up of Crohn’s disease.

Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)—a category of autoimmune diseases that also includes ulcerative colitis. In cases of IBD, the immune system incorrectly mistakes beneficial gut bacteria for dangerous bacteria.

Three million American adults reported being diagnosed with IBD in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Crohn’s disease currently affects about 780,000 Americans, according to data from the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation. People of any age can develop Crohn’s disease, but it’s most commonly diagnosed among teenagers and young adults ages 15 to 35.

How is Crohn’s disease different from other types of IBD, like ulcerative colitis?

Crohn’s disease has similar symptoms as ulcerative colitis—such as diarrhea, abdominal pain, fatigue, bloody stool, weight loss, and fatigue—but the two diseases affect different parts of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Ulcerative colitis only affects the lining of the large intestine (colon) and rectum. Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the GI tract, from mouth to anus, but it most commonly impacts the the end of the small bowel (ileum) and the beginning of the colon. It can affect all layers of the bowel wall, and inflammation can be inconsistent, with normal patches occurring between sections of inflammation. In order to make the distinction between ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, a colonoscopy will be performed to determine the location of the diseased tissue.

Because Crohn’s is a chronic autoimmune disease, it can flare up and cause symptoms for a period of time, and then go into remission where no symptoms are present. Symptoms can also depend on which part of the GI tract is affected by the disease. The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation details the different types and symptoms of Crohn’s disease.

How is IBD different from IBS?

While irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can result in similar symptoms to IBD, the two diseases are very different. In IBS, the gut is not inflamed, so an endoscopy or colonoscopy will not find any diseased tissue. IBS doesn’t damage bowel tissue the way IBD does, so those with IBS have a lower risk of serious side effects. However, IBS can still have a devastating impact on a person’s quality of life and can be associated with changes in the gut microbiome. If you experience IBS symptoms, be sure to see a doctor to learn more about treatment.

Are there serious risks of Crohn’s Disease?

IBD complications can be much more serious than those of IBS. In severe cases of Crohn’s disease, tears in the lining of the anus can cause pain and bleeding during bowel movements. In other cases, a fistula may develop, which is a tunnel that leads from one looped section of intestine to another or that connects the intestine to the bladder, vagina, or skin.This is a serious condition that requires emergency medical attention.

Crohn’s patients who are not seeing results from medication or who develop a fistula, fissure, or intestinal obstruction may need to have surgery to remove a diseased bowel segment and join the ends of healthy bowel tissue together, but advances in medicine mean surgery is fairly uncommon.

Data suggests that people with IBD are at an increased risk for colon cancer and other malignancies, so it’s important to schedule regular visits with your care provider if you have IBD.

How is Crohn’s Disease diagnosed?

Unfortunately, there is no single test that can definitively diagnose Crohn’s disease; instead, your doctor needs to know your symptoms and run blood and stool tests to eliminate other, more serious conditions.

Doctors typically use contrast radiography, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or Computed Tomography (CT) and endoscopy to diagnose Crohn’s disease (a colonoscopy is used to diagnose ulcerative colitis). In an upper endoscopy, a tube is inserted into your mouth, down into your stomach and duodenum (the first part of your small intestine), to allow doctors to examine your gut.

Your doctor may also suggest a biopsy of your colon or small intestine, in which a small piece of tissue is removed and analyzed.

How is Crohn’s Disease treated?

Once you’ve received a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease, your doctor will offer you treatment options including medication and dietary changes. The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation provides a directory of the types of medication prescribed for Crohn’s disease to suppress inflammation and relieve symptoms.

Some doctors suggest switching to soft, bland foods and reducing dairy to help your GI tract heal. Your healthcare provider can also use SmartGut testing to monitor changes in your gut flora over time, which may help them develop an effective treatment plan.

Destigmatizing Crohn’s disease

If you have Crohn’s disease symptoms or have recently been diagnosed with IBD, including Crohn’s disease, you’re not alone, and fortunately, medication and diet adjustments can often help alleviate your symptoms. Want more info? Visit the CDC IBD page or the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation’s website.

Click here to learn how uBiome’s clinical SmartGut test can help your health provider understand your IBD symptoms