Crohn's disease - what you need to know

Caroline Cassidy

Crohn's disease, though relatively rare, is a long-term condition that causes serious discomfort and in some cases, severe complications that may require surgery. According to the NHS, there are currently around 90,000 sufferers in the UK, with around seven new cases for every 100,000 people diagnosed each year.

crohn's disease
crohn's disease

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If you suspect you may have developed the condition or would like to know more about treatment or self-help, here are the facts.

What is it?
Simply put, Crohn's is a long-term condition that causes inflammation of the lining of the digestive system. It can affect any part of the digestive system but usually occurs in the small or large intestine. Left untreated, the inflammation can damage sections of the digestive system.

Initially, the symptoms of Crohn's can easily be mistaken for a simple tummy bug. Diarrhoea, abdominal pain (often exacerbated by eating), extreme fatigue, blood or mucus in the stools and weight loss are the most common symptoms.

Less common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, joint pain, skin rashes and a high temperature. Those between the ages of 15 and 40 are most likely to notice symptoms appearing.

People with the condition typically find their symptoms form a pattern of remission, where the symptoms are very mild or disappear, and then flare-up.

Sufferers may experience one or all of the above, but if you have persistent diarrhoea or abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss or blood in your faeces, it is time to see the doctor.

Diagnosis and treatment
A number of tests are necessary to confirm a diagnosis of Crohn's disease and rule out other possibilities. To begin with, your GP will check pulse, blood pressure, temperature, weight and height, and examine your abdomen.

Blood tests and a stool sample will likely be the next step, but if Crohn's is suspected, a colonoscopy, where an endoscope us used to examine the colon, is commonly ordered. By taking a biopsy (a small tissue sample) from different sections of your digestive system, the cells can be examined to check for changes known to occur with Crohn's.

There is no cure for Crohn's disease as yet, but a combination of medication, lifestyle changes and sometimes surgery can help to improve the symptoms.

Steroid medications are commonly used to treat and relieve the active symptoms of Crohn's, while aminosalicylates are often prescribed to help reduce inflammation inside the colon.

On a more long-term basis, immunosuppressants can be taken to suppress the immune system, thereby reducing the inflammation.

However, when medication does not control the disease, surgery may be necessary. The NHS advises that an estimated 60 to 70 per cent of sufferers will require surgery at some point, to remove the inflamed section of the digestive system. It may also be necessary should complications such as a fistula, a tunnel caused by an ulcer that connects one part of the digestive system to another, or a bowel obstruction.

Some sufferers, however, find that making simple changes to their diet and lifestyle can help to alleviate their symptoms. For instance, some people report that certain foods, typically spicy, fatty foods, alcohol and dairy products, aggravate the symptoms. If that seems to be the case, keep a food diary to narrow down the potential causes. But do not cut out entire food groups without consulting your doctor or a dietician as supplements may be required.

It often helps to eat six smaller meals each day, rather than the usual three larger meals, as eating is often the trigger for discomfort.

And most importantly, if you're a smoker, quit. Not only are smokers twice as likely to develop the condition and relapse after surgery, their symptoms are commonly much more severe.

It's better to be safe than sorry, so see your doctor if you are concerned.

Do you suffer from Crohn's disease? What has helped to alleviate your symptoms? Leave your comments below...