Crohn’s disease is a chronic, autoimmune disorder that affects someone’s entire gastrointestinal tract (GI). Because it’s an inflammatory condition, it can also lead to severe problems in other areas of the body, too.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) represents a group of intestinal disorders that cause inflammation of the digestive tract. The most notable of these conditions include ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. In the United States, about 1 to 1.3 million people have IBD, and it’s believed that roughly 780,000 Americans live with Crohn’s.
The key difference between the two is that ulcerative colitis involves only the colon, while Crohn’s involves the entire digestive tract, from the mouth all the way to the anus, leaving people with Crohn’s susceptible to battling far more diverse physical and emotional complications.
Common symptoms of Crohn’s are digestive complications, abdominal pain, and weight loss. In severe cases, the disease can become life-threatening. People with Crohn’s usually have flare-ups of disease activity followed by a period of remission. Remissions can be short or last for many years.
There’s no cure for Crohn’s disease, but there are several lifestyle adjustments and treatments that can improve quality of life and increase the chances for a longer remission.
Crohn’s mainly affects the digestive tract. The most common area of disease activity involves the lower part of the small intestine (ileum). Inflammation can also affect other parts of the intestines, causing swelling and thickening. Eventually, thick scar tissue can narrow the passage or block the bowel entirely. If that happens, you may need surgery to remove part of the bowel.
Ulcers can also develop anywhere in the digestive tract, including deep in the bowel wall.
Fistulas, or abnormal passageways, can open up between one part of the bowel and another, or between the bowel and the bladder, anus, vagina, or skin. This can allow bowel contents to bypass part of your intestines. It may lead to malabsorption of nutrients. Fistulas that lead to the skin can allow bowel drainage to accumulate on your skin.
About 30 percent of people with Crohn’s develop fistulas. Fistulas increase the risks for infection and abscess.
People with Crohn’s can also develop anal fissures, or small tears in the lining of the anal canal. Fissures can cause cracking, bleeding, pain, and itchiness.
Chronic diarrhea, combined with poor absorption of nutrients, can lead to vitamin deficiencies and malnutrition.
Crohn’s disease increases the risk of developing kidney stones, gallstones, fever, and liver disease. Flare-ups can cause canker sores in the mouth, which tend to clear up along with gastrointestinal symptoms.
People with Crohn’s are also at increased risk of developing colon cancer.
The body and mind are inseparable, and the symptoms of Crohn’s can result in emotional difficulties. While the primary cause of Crohn’s is not emotional, flare-ups may occur in times that are more emotionally challenging. Coping with a serious chronic illness is already difficult, so it’s important to monitor stress and emotional levels.
Poor absorption of iron can cause anemia. Untreated, iron deficiency anemia can lead to heart problems such as fast or irregular heartbeat. Over time, you may develop an enlarged heart or heart failure. During pregnancy, iron deficiency is associated with premature birth and low birth weight. In children, anemia can delay growth and development.
Having IBD triples the risk of developing a blood clot in a deep vein (deep vein thrombosis) or a clot that blocks a lung artery (pulmonary embolism). This risk may be even greater when you’re hospitalized.
Corticosteroids, which can be used to treat Crohn’s, may raise your risk of developing high blood pressure. Immunomodulators and biologic therapies are sometimes used to treat Crohn’s. Using these immune-suppressing medications may increase the risk of lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.
Crohn’s disease doesn’t generally weaken bones, but patients can have related issues, with or without inflammation.
About 10 to 20 percent of people with IBD experience arthralgia. These aches and pains in the joints do not involve inflammation or damage the joint. About 30 percent of people with IBD are affected by arthritis. This type of joint pain is caused by inflammation. Arthritis can lead to reduced flexibility and permanent joint damage.
Doctors may not be able to tell at first if your arthritis is associated with Crohn’s. When it is, symptoms usually improve when your intestinal symptoms do. If your Crohn’s treatment involves corticosteroids, you may be at increased risk of bone fractures, joint pain and swelling, and osteoporosis.
About 10 percent of people with IBD have eye problems. The most common of these is inflammation of the uvea (uveitis), which is the middle layer of the eye wall. This can cause:
- light sensitivity
- blurry vision
Symptoms usually get better when Crohn’s is under control.
People with Crohn’s have a slightly increased risk of developing erhthema nodosum or pyoderma gangrenosum on the ankles, shins, or arms.
Erhthema nodosum is when red bumps appear on the skin. Pyoderma gangrenosum is when you develop pus and deep ulcerations on the skin. Both tend to clear up along with other symptoms of a Crohn’s flare-up.