It's like having the stomach flu, but worse. You have cycles of stomach pain, usually after you eat a meal. But how do you know if it's Crohn's disease?
Crohn's disease is much more serious than a stomach bug. It is a chronic illness, and there are treatments, but currently no cure.
With Crohn's, the uncomfortable symptoms are caused by inflammation in the digestive tract. The body's immune system mistakenly attacks normal, healthy tissue.
Scientists and doctors don't yet know what causes Crohn's, but getting diagnosed is the first step to feeling better. Receiving the right care and support can vastly improve quality of life with Crohn's.
The symptoms of Crohn's can be very common, or be very severe. It depends on how Crohn's affects your own digestive tract.
In most patients, Crohn's targets the last part of the small intestine and the colon. Symptoms will come and go in periods of flare-ups and remission, when the disease is not active.
One of the most common symptoms is diarrhea. According to the Mayo Clinic website, inflammation causes cells to secrete salt and water, contributing to loose stools.
Abdominal cramps are also common. The repeated inflammation and ulceration of Crohn's disease can create scar tissue on your bowel walls, making normal contents of the digestive tract very painful as they pass through.
You might also notice blood in your stool, a sign that your symptoms are going beyond the normal stomach bug. Ulcers may appear in your intestine, where you can't see them, or in your mouth, where you can.
Weight loss and loss of appetite are common. The disease affects your ability to digest and absorb food.
Severe symptoms include:
- Eye inflammation
- Mouth sores
- Skin disorders
- Inflammation of the liver or bile ducts
- Delayed growth, or sexual development, in children
If you experience these symptoms on an ongoing basis, it's time for a visit for the doctor. If it's serious, your doctor should refer you to a gastroenterologist, who specializes in gastrointestinal conditions.
Doctors will try to rule out every other condition before settling on a diagnosis of Crohn's. Many other diseases have similar symptoms, including ulcerative colitis, diverticulitis and colon cancer.
Expect to take two or more tests to determine whether or not you have Crohn's.
Blood Test: Blood tests look for clues in your cells that might indicate Crohn's. Anemia might turn up the fact that you don't have enough red blood cells to carry oxygen to your tissues, according to the Mayo Clinic.
These tests can also search for the presence of certain antibodies, which might hint at what kind of irritable bowel disease (IBD) you have. But the tests aren't conclusive, and your doctor will need more information to make a diagnosis.
Stool tests: One symptom of Crohn's that you might not notice is occult, or hidden blood in your feces. You would provide a sample to your doctor for analysis.
Colonoscopy: A colonoscopy is a common, even routine, test involving a tube with a camera attached. In the case of Crohn's, your doctor might do a biopsy from inside your colon to send out for laboratory analysis.
The colonoscopy also aims to identify clusters of inflamed cells within the colon that are unique to Crohn's, and separate it from ulcerative colitis.
Other tests include:
- CT scan
- MRI scans
- Capsule endoscopy
- Double balloon endoscopy
Doctors have many tools to provide a solid diagnosis of Crohn's. If you are indeed diagnosed with the disease, the next step is to get help.
Resources for Newly Diagnosed Patients
You'll be talking with your doctor and your family about the best treatment options that are available to you. It may seem overwhelming to begin to deal with a life-long disease, but fortunately there are lots of resource to help you make decisions and understand how to deal with Crohn's.
Start with the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America. They have a section on their website dedicated to information and resources, ranging from articles about diet to finances.
Many people are going through the same thing that you are. Whether you meet online or in person, support groups can provide a place where you can share your experiences, ask questions, and learn more about your condition.
The Crohn's and Colitis Community can be found at www.ccfacommunity.org. Once you get involved, you can help others like you.
Crohn's is being diagnosed in more and more people, and research efforts are getting a lot of attention. Events, like a walk called “Take Steps,” fundraise and support research happen all over the country.
Once you get diagnosed, treatment and support will help you deal with the new challenges in your life.