Crohn's disease—also known as regional enteritis—is an illness that is characterized by abnormal inflammation within the digestive tract. This inflammation can cause a host of other complications that can interfere with the body's ability to process food and can even be life threatening.
At this time, Crohn's disease is incurable, and its cause remains unknown. The good news, however, is that Crohn’s can be successfully managed, allowing many of its sufferers to minimize its effect on their lives.
Crohn's commonly strikes the lower portion of the small intestine (called the ileum) or parts of the large intestine (the colon), but symptoms can appear anywhere within the gastrointestinal system from the mouth to the anus.
It can cause deep inflammation which affects most or all of the tissue layers in the affected area, and it is not unusual for there to be a number of diseased portions present at the same time, with portions of healthy tissue in between.
The disease can cause symptoms in cycles, with active periods of severe symptoms followed by other periods where a person can be mostly or completely free of symptoms.
The disease was first described in 1932 by a team of researchers including Dr. Burrill B. Crohn. Experts classify it as a member of a family of illnesses called inflammatory bowel disease.
Another disease in this family is called ulcerative colitis. It has similar symptoms but tends to affect different areas – usually the colon and rectum. Also unlike Crohn's, ulcerative colitis usually only affects a few layers of tissue, while affecting the tissue uniformly, meaning there are no gaps of healthy tissue in between.
Despite the differences, the two diseases are similar enough that their treatment regimens are close to one another. The main goal of treatment is to ease the disease symptoms, and then to keep those symptoms in check.
Treatment usually centers on drugs that counter the body's inflammatory response. Drugs can include those in the anti-inflammatory family, steroids and antibiotics.
If the case is serious enough, surgery may be necessary to repair or even remove damaged portions of the affected part of the digestive tract.
Crohn's can be found in any demographic—with males and females affected equally—but it tends to be more prevalent in people between 15 and 35.
It is also more likely to appear in developed nations and in urban areas. Caucasian populations, particularly those with Jewish ancestry from Eastern Europe, are also more likely to have the disease. Having a close family member with Crohn's increases the risk.
Women with the disease can have a safe pregnancy, but, it is a good idea to check with your physician if you have questions.
“Anybody is a candidate for Crohn’s Disease. It can occur in young children, young adults, middle-aged individuals and the elderly. It can be very serious however most patients can live a normal life with therapy,” states Charles T. Richardson, M.D., a gastroenterologist with Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas.
Written by: Anthony Watt
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD