What is Crohn’s disease?

Crohn’s disease, along with Ulcerative Colitis, is often known as Inflammatory Bowel Disease. It is thought that about 4,000 new cases are diagnosed annually in the UK. Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammatory process which can affect any part of the intestinal tract from mouth to anus. The two most likely sites for occurrence are the last bit of the small intestine and/or the large intestine and anus. The disease affects all the layers in the wall of the gut is characterised by affected areas interspersed with normal areas of tissue.

It can affect both men and women, usually between the ages of 16 and 40. In the UK there are populations reported to be at higher risk of developing Crohn’s disease, for example individuals from among the Jewish population and Asian immigrants. There is some evidence to suggest that there could be genetic indicators for developing the disease, as well as immunological (problems with the immune system) and/or bacterial causes.

Symptoms of Crohn’s disease

Because it can affect any part of the digestive tract, symptoms of Crohn’s disease can vary greatly. Common symptoms include pain in the abdomen, diarrhoea, fever, weight loss and feeling bloated. Not all of these symptoms need be experienced, indeed some patients will experience none of them. These symptoms can also be ascribed to a variety of other bowel problems, so it is worth getting them checked out by your GP. Other less common symptoms include anal pain, or leakage, skin lesions, abscesses in the rectum, fissures and pain in the joints.

Crohn’s disease is a chronic, life time condition, during which there will be periods which are free of symptoms (remission).

Diagnosis of Crohn’s disease

There are a variety of tests which can be used to diagnose Crohn’s disease and rule out other conditions. This will begin with a visit to the GP who will discuss symptoms, carry out initial external examination and decide on which specialist tests it may be appropriate to refer for. Usually this will mean referral for a colonoscopy, other methods include a sigmoidoscopy, and stool and blood tests can rule out other conditions. A barium X ray will assist in pinpointing areas of the digestive system which are affected.

Treatment of Crohn’s disease

There is no cure for Crohn’s disease, but medicines such as anti-inflammatory / immunosuppressant drugs and antibiotics are often helpful in managing the symptoms. As many as 8 out of 10 people with the disease will need surgical intervention at some point. This is undertaken in cases of emergency when the gut has become blocked or perforated. At other times surgery will be carried out when it is clear that they disease is not being managed adequately by medicinal interventions. Surgery is often the answer to providing long term relief of symptoms and can mean that patients no longer need medicines to help control the disease.

Outcomes and further sources of support

Depending on the severity of the disease, the medicines outlined above will be very helpful in its management. Should surgery be required it can be very effective in tackling current and future symptoms. Crohn’s and Colitis UK offers support to sufferers through local groups.