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Crohn's Disease

Crohn's disease is a chronic, recurrent inflammatory disease of the intestinal tract. The intestinal tract has four major parts: the esophagus, or food tube; the stomach, where food is churned and digested; the long, small bowel, where nutrients, calories, and vitamins are absorbed; and the colon and rectum, where water is absorbed and stool is stored.

The two primary sites for Crohn's disease are the ileum, which is the last portion of the small bowel (ileitis, regional enteritis), and the colon (Crohn's colitis). The condition begins as small, microscopic nests of inflammation, which persist and smolder. The lining of the bowel can then become ulcerated and the bowel wall thickened. Eventually, the bowel may become narrowed.

What Causes Crohn's Disease?
After many years of intense research, the cause of Crohn's disease is still unknown. One theory is that an unidentified, slow-growing microorganism causes the condition. The body's immune system, which protects it against many different infections, is also known to be a factor. In spite of the unknown cause, enormous understanding and knowledge currently exists about the disease and its treatment.


The symptoms of Crohn's disease depend on where in the intestinal tract the disorder first appears. When the ileum (ileitis) is involved, recurrent pain may be experienced in the right lower abdomen. At times, the pain mimics acute appendicitis. When the colon is the site, diarrhea (which is sometimes bloody) may occur, as well as fever and weight loss. When the inflammation is active, fatigue and lethargy appear. In children and young people there may be difficulty gaining or maintaining weight.


Usually there is no one conclusive diagnostic test for Crohn's disease. The physician uses a series of tests to assess the patient's overall condition and then makes a diagnosis. The patient's medical history and physical exam are always helpful. Certain blood and stool tests are performed to arrive at a diagnosis. X-rays of the small intestine and colon (obtained through an upper GI series and barium enema) are usually required.

In addition, a visual examination (sigmoidoscopy) of the lining of the rectum and lower bowel is usually necessary. A more extensive exam of the entire colon (colonoscopy) is often the best way of diagnosing the problem when the disease is in the colon.

Course and Complications

The disorder often remains quiet and easily controlled for long periods of time. Most people with Crohn's disease continue to pursue their goals in life, go to school, marry, have a family, and work with few limitations or inconveniences. Some problems, outside the bowel, can occur. Arthritis, eye and skin problems, and--in rare instances--chronic liver conditions may develop. The disease can occur around the anal canal. Open sores called fissures can develop, which are often painful. A fistula can also form. This is a tiny channel that burrows from the rectum to the skin around the anus. In addition, when inflammation persists in the ileum or colon, narrowing and partial obstruction may occur. Often surgery is required to treat these problems. When Crohn's disease has been present for many years there is an increased risk of cancer.


Effective medical and surgical treatment is available for Crohn's disease. It is particularly important to maintain good nutrition and health with a balanced diet, adequate exercise, and a positive, upbeat attitude.

Four types of medications are usually used in treating this disease:
  1. Cortisone or Steroids--These powerful drugs provide highly effective results. Often, a high dose is used initially to bring the disorder under control. The drug is then tapered to a low maintenance dose. This medicine is administered by pill or enema. Prednisone is a common generic name for it.
  2. Anti-inflammation Drugs--sulfasalazine (Azulfidine), Dipentum, Asacol, Rowasa, and Pentasa belong to a group of drugs called the 5-aminosalicylate group. These drugs are most useful in maintaining a remission, once the disease is brought under control. They are available in oral and enema preparations.
  3. Immune Systems Suppressor--These medications suppress the body's immune system, which appears to be overly active and to perpetuate the disease. The names of two of these commonly used mediations are azathioprine (trade name: Imuran) and 6 MP (trade name: Purinethol). There are other potent immune-suppressing drugs that may be used in difficult cases.
  4. Antibiotics--Since there is frequently a bacterial infection along with Crohn's disease, a wide assortment of antibiotics is available to treat this problem. One that is commonly used is metronidazole (trade name: Flagyl).

Diet and Emotions

There are no foods known to actually injure the bowel. However, during an acute phase of the disease, bulky foods, milk, and milk products can increase diarrhea and cramping. Generally, the patient is advised to eat a well-balanced diet, with adequate protein and calories. The physician may recommend a multi-vitamin and iron supplement.

Stress, anxiety, and extreme emotions may aggravate symptoms of the disorder, but are not believed to cause it or make it worse. Any chronic disease can produce a serious emotional reaction, which can usually be handled though discussion with the physician.


Surgery is commonly needed at some time during the course of Crohn's disease. It may involve removing a portion of diseased bowel, or simply the draining of an abscess or fistula. In all cases, the guiding principle is to perform the least amount of surgery to correct the problem. It should be understood that surgery does not cure Crohn's disease.


Most people with Crohn's disease lead active lives with few restrictions. Although there is no known cure for the disorder, it can be managed with present treatments. For a few patients, the course of the disease can be more difficult and complicated, requiring extensive testing and therapy. Surgery sometimes is required. In all cases, follow-up care is essential to treat the disease and prevent complications that may arise.