The Medical Minute: Crohn's disease

By Robert Evans and Jill P. Smith

Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammatory disease of the gastrointestinal tract that belongs to a group of illnesses called inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, about one in 500 people suffers from IBD. Crohn’s can present at any age and affects both genders and all races. It is a chronic disease for which there is no cure, but for which health care providers and researchers are improving their ability to decrease its activity.

Crohn’s can affect any location from mouth to anus, but most commonly affects the region where the small bowel joins the large bowel (terminal ileum). The large bowel (colon) is the next most frequently affected site. Crohn’s disease that affects the anal area can present with painful abscesses and areas of discharge.

Symptoms associated with Crohn’s disease include diarrhea (occasionally with blood) and abdominal pain. Weight loss, malnutrition and anemia (low blood count) may occur, particularly when the small intestine is involved. Although this disease primarily affects the intestine, other organs also may be involved. Arthritis joint pain, skin rashes and mouth ulcers may occur. Complications of the inflammatory process include the development of strictures, or narrowing of the bowel, or abscess formation.

The cause of Crohn’s disease is unknown. Certain people have a genetic susceptibility. Environmental factors also may be involved, such as a bacterial infection, certain dietary proteins or even stress, which may trigger the disease in a genetically susceptible patient.

The treatment of Crohn’s disease has significantly improved, and although the medications do not offer a cure, they may induce a remission. Most of the medications used reduce the inflammatory response to the disease, and it is the inflammation associated with Crohn’s disease that causes most of the tissue damage. Patients on medication for their disease need to be compliant and be monitored closely for serious side effects, including risk for infections.

Research is under way at medical centers across the country, including Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, to learn more about Crohn's and to give those suffering with the disorder alternatives to treatment. To learn more about research options for people with Crohn’s at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, please call (717) 531-8108.

The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America is a reputable organization that is very involved in patient education regarding this disease.

For more information about Crohn’s disease, please visit Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center Health Information Library online.

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Robert Evans is a fellow and Jill P. Smith is an attending physician in the Gastroenterology Division at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

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Last Updated March 19, 2009