Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease that affects the digestive tract. Most people who are diagnosed with Crohn’s are diagnosed in their 20s or 30s.1 Although the disease is not fatal, it can negatively impact your quality of life if it’s not managed correctly.
If you’re diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, it’s important to stay on top of symptoms by visiting your doctor and specialist regularly. Maintaining a healthy diet and exercise routine can go a long way in treating your symptoms. Although it can be frightening to receive a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease, with a bit of research and professional medical attention, getting on top of your symptoms won’t take long.
Early Warning Signs of Crohn’s
The symptoms of Crohn’s disease vary, depending on which part of your gastrointestinal tract is inflamed. Symptoms can also flare up, then calm down as the inflammation passes. In the beginning, symptoms like frequent diarrhea and stomach pain are often the first sign that there’s something wrong. Diarrhea and cramping pain often occur together or you may deal with only one symptom at a time. It’s tempting to try and explain the symptoms away by attributing them to negative reactions to food, but unlike an allergy or stomach flu, these symptoms will occur regardless of what food you ate.2
As the inflammation in your gastrointestinal tract gets worse, you may begin to experience more severe symptoms like fever, weight loss, and anemia, a condition that occurs when your body doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells or hemoglobin. Having anemia will make you feel tired, dizzy, and breathless, and may give you more frequent headaches. As your Crohn’s disease progresses or if you’re experiencing a severe inflammation flare, you may experience more serious symptoms like a high fever, continual vomiting, and a swollen abdomen, which could be evidence of a serious intestinal obstruction.
How is Crohn’s Diagnosed?
If you’ve been experiencing frequent bouts of diarrhea and abdominal pain and are unable to explain why, get your physician involved. They will be able to run the necessary tests to confirm a diagnosis. Typically, this testing process starts with patients submitting both a blood and stool sample. Your doctor will analyze your blood sample for any evidence of infection or anemia and will also be able to see if you’re missing key vitamins and minerals that tend to be absent in Crohn’s patients.3
After a blood and stool test, you’ll likely be referred to a gastroenterologist, who will order imaging tests like x-rays, CT scans, and an endoscopy, which involves a minuscule camera which can transmit images or video from various parts of your gastrointestinal tract. This lets doctors see the severity of the inflammation and which parts of your gastrointestinal tract are affected. Once they’ve determined which areas are affected by the Crohn’s disease, they can begin to formulate a treatment plan. It’s important to be honest with your doctor about any symptoms you may have, no matter how embarrassing they may be. The only way your doctor can treat your Crohn’s disease effectively is if they’re aware of the severity and duration of your symptoms.
How is Crohn’s Treated?
Once your doctor has confirmed a diagnosis, they will begin working on a treatment plan to treat your symptoms and help you achieve a period of remission. In cases of Crohn’s disease, an extended period of few to no symptoms is considered remission. With the correct prescription drugs and treatment plan, remission is entirely possible.
Many treatment plans begin with medications that help control inflammation, starting with aminosalicylates, which decrease the inflammation in the lining of the intestines. Corticosteroids, which can be taken orally or given as an injection, also help decrease inflammation by suppressing the immune system. These work best on a short-term basis. If inflammation leads to an infection in your gastrointestinal tract, antibiotics are prescribed to clear up these complications. Over-the-counter drugs like antidiarrheals and basic pain relievers like Tylenol and Advil are also used to help treat individual symptoms.4
Most treatment plans for Crohn’s disease begin with medication. However, more than 60 percent of patients with Crohn’s disease will require surgery to help manage the effects of complications at some point in their life. There are different surgical procedures that doctors can recommend, depending on where the complication is located.
Exercise and diet become extremely important when you’re diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Stomach pain and diarrhea may turn daily meals into an unpleasant chore, but it’s still necessary to maintain healthy eating habits to ensure your body has the energy and nutrition it needs to deal with symptoms. Some people find that bland, soft foods are easier to digest than food that’s spicy or high in fiber.5
Exercise is also important. It helps improve your mood, relieves stress, and can lessen the chance of symptoms occurring outside of your gastrointestinal tract.6
What Should You Do?
If you’ve been experiencing diarrhea and stomach pain on a regular basis and feel that it might be a sign of something more than just food-related discomfort, consult your doctor right away. Crohn’s disease and other inflammatory bowel diseases can be extremely complex, and require a lifetime of careful management and care.7 Even though it may feel disheartening to receive a diagnosis of Crohn’s or IBD, with the right medication and treatment plan, ongoing remission and excellent quality of life is possible.