It used to be that people didn’t talk about the goings-on of their guts. Maladies like diarrhea, stomach cramps and rectal bleeding were stigmatized and kept hush-hush — but these are symptoms of Crohn’s disease, so hiding them in many cases unfortunately concealed a very real, very common problem.
These days, more people are open about their struggles with Crohn’s disease, which affects some 500,000 people — even a handful of celebrities — in the United States, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
So what is Crohn’s disease?
“Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that causes inflammation anywhere in the gastrointestinal tract from the mouth to the perianal area,” said Laurie Grossberg, MD a gastroenterologist at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center. “It most commonly affects the distal small bowel or both the small bowel and colon.”
Here are 10 other facts you should know about this common, and often treatable, disease.
1. Crohn’s usually develops in your younger years and there may be a genetic predisposition.
Most cases of Crohn’s disease arise during adolescence and young adulthood, between the ages of 13 to 30, says the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“We don’t exactly know what causes Crohn’s disease, but genetics may play a role,” Dr. Grossberg said. “That’s why I always ask for a family history when patients ask about their symptoms.”
Even though it is more common to develop Crohn’s at a young age, there is a bimodal distribution and patients can develop Crohn’s at an older age.
2. The symptoms of Crohn’s disease can mimic other diseases.
Sometimes, it can be hard to tell the difference between Crohn’s disease and other stomach troubles, given the fact that many of the symptoms overlap. In general, people with Crohn’s disease have some mix of these symptoms:
- Abdominal cramps
- Diarrhea, with or without blood
- Weight loss
- Perianal discomfort
- Joint pain
- Mouth sores
“In addition to an office visit and physical examination, we perform other tests to determine if the symptoms are secondary to Crohn’s disease,” Dr. Grossberg said. “Typically this evaluation includes blood work, stool tests, endoscopic evaluation and abdominal imaging studies.”
3. Symptoms can appear in parts of the body you may not expect.
“Patients with Crohn’s can develop symptoms outside of the gastrointestinal tract including eye problems, skin rashes, and joint pains. Gastroenterologists often work closely with rheumatologists, dermatologists, and ophthalmologists to manage these extraintestinal manifestations,” said Dr. Grossberg.
4. Changing your diet can help you manage Crohn’s disease.
Depending on your situation, your doctor might suggest a few dietary changes to keep your symptoms in check, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases says.
There is no particular food category that triggers Crohn’s symptoms. “I recommend that patients in remission eat a healthy diet. It is not uncommon for patients with Crohn’s to also have symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in the absence of active Crohn’s disease. These IBS symptoms can sometimes be managed with dietary modifications,” Dr. Grossberg said.
5. There is no cure for Crohn’s disease. But it can be treated.
“In treating Crohn’s disease we aim to achieve both symptomatic improvement and to heal the disease on the inside. There are several medical treatments available for Crohn’s disease. We also work closely with our colorectal surgery group because patients may require surgery to help treat the disease,” said Dr. Grossberg
6. It’s important to pay attention to mental health, too.
People with IBD are at risk for depression and anxiety, the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation reports. That’s why minding your mental health plays a huge role in your overall well-being. Support groups and counselors can help, as can being honest about your condition with friends and family.
7. Yes, you can still have an active sex life with Crohn’s disease.
IBD shouldn’t keep you from enjoying normal activities — and that includes healthy sexual relationships.
8. Women can have a healthy pregnancy with Crohn’s disease.
Under the care of an obstetrician and gastroenterologist, women with Crohn’s disease can have healthy pregnancies and deliver healthy babies.
Most medications for Crohn’s disease can be continued safely during pregnancy, and patients who are in remission have the best outcomes. It is best to meet with your gastroenterologist to discuss pregnancy prior to conception.
9. Crohn’s disease can increase your risk for colon cancer.
Development of Crohn’s disease in the large intestine can raise a person’s risk for colon cancer. Patients with longstanding disease in more than 1/3 of their colon, should undergo routine colonoscopies for surveillance.
10. Crohn’s disease shouldn’t hold you back.
Between treatments, dietary changes, mental health support and talking about your disease with others, people live fulfilling lives with Crohn’s. Just look at Saturday Night Live comedian Pete Davidson or actress Shannen Doherty.
“As doctors, we’re here to help,” Dr. Grossberg said. ” Crohn’s disease is common, and treatments can — and do — help. I have so many patients who are living with Crohn’s disease and feel great. Active disease management is a huge part of that.”
What is Crohn’s disease? Want to talk to a gastroenterologist about your symptoms? Find one near you.