Many people won't seek treatment for Crohn's disease for months, years, or in some cases, even decades. Either their symptoms are mild enough to ignore or they simply mistake them for another condition.
For instance, a person may believe he or she is suffering from lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome, or an intestinal parasite when they actually have Crohn's disease. Others, however, don’t wait to see a doctor because their symptoms are severe and require immediate treatment.
There are no definitive tests for the disease, so it’s important to seek the opinion of a physician before attempting to self-diagnose Crohn's. Your doctor will look for certain symptoms to make the proper diagnosis.
Symptoms of Crohn's Disease
Although Crohn's disease shares its symptoms with several other conditions and diseases, there are a few to keep an eye on.
Because it’s a chronic disease, Crohn's symptoms may go away for long periods of time and then reemerge during flare-ups. If you’re experiencing one or more of the following symptoms, you should consult your doctor:
- severe "crampy" abdominal pain (usually shortly after eating and most often centered around the navel, lower right abdomen, or both)
- frequent diarrhea (with or without blood)
- rectal bleeding (blood and/or mucus in the stool)
- rectal urgency (frequent, urgent bowel movements)
- weight loss (usually due to the discomfort after eating but may be due to nutritional deficiency)
- increased gas
- a persistent lack of energy
- a firm, grapefruit-sized swelling in the lower right abdomen that’s usually painful to the touch (found in about 25 percent of Crohn's patients)
- perianal disease (a fistula which may include one or more abscesses and skin tags around the anus that affects 25 percent of Crohn's patients)
- children who don't grow at proper rates
Symptoms That May Point to Something Else
Crohn's disease is rare compared to many other gastrointestinal illnesses and conditions. If a person displays any of the following symptoms, they may be suffering from something else:
- abdominal pain, vomiting, or diarrhea that subsides between 36 to 48 hours after a diet of clear liquids and bland food such as soda crackers, rice, or toasted white bread
- abdominal pain, diarrhea, and fever that are easily relieved by over-the-counter medications such as Pepto-Bismol, Imodium A-D, or Tylenol
- symptoms occur after eating dairy products such as milk, ice cream, cheese, or yogurt and go away if these foods are removed from the diet (may be a sign of lactose intolerance)
- symptoms tend to be linked to stress (may be irritable bowel syndrome, IBS)
- alternating diarrhea and constipation
- misplaced abdominal pain
What to Do if You Suspect Crohn's
Once again, there’s no single or definitive diagnostic test for Crohn's disease. A doctor's diagnosis will be made based upon a patient's medical history, physical examination, and the results of any tests such as an x-ray or a biopsy. There are, however, a few things you can do to make a diagnosis easier for your doctor.
- Schedule plenty of time for an initial appointment to make sure all your questions are answered.
- When describing symptoms, be specific and avoid self- diagnosing statements such as "It felt like the time I had..."It’s the doctor's job to diagnose).
- Write down questions for your doctor in descending order from most to least important.
- Take notes during the initial appointment to make sure you don’t miss or forget any import information.
- Bring a list of medications (and dosages) you’re taking so your doctor can determine whether or not symptoms may be related to side effects of the drugs
- Bring your spouse or friend to the initial appointment for moral support as well as to help you remember crucial information.
What to Do if You’re Diagnosed with Crohn's Disease
Don't panic. Although there is currently no cure for Crohn's disease, most people with the illness lead relatively normal, active, and productive lives.
The disease itself may remain in remission for long periods, with flare-ups only occurring every few months or years. Therapeutic advancements help even those with the most severe cases of Crohn's manage their symptoms better than ever before.
Surgical advances also allow some people to remain disease-free for years at a time. It’s important to note that a diagnosis of Crohn's is not a death sentence and it may even help you regain your life.