You’ve felt the symptoms for the past few weeks, and over-the-counter meds don’t seem to be helping: Gas. Constipation. Pain in your stomach. Since Crohn’s disease runs in your family, you’re wondering if you’ve inherited it.
But what’s the difference between Crohn’s disease symptoms and other gastrointestinal problems? Could this be ulcerative colitis? Irritable bowel syndrome, maybe? Or is it just something you’re eating?
“Crohn’s Disease can be a challenging disorder to diagnose” says Jeffrey Tokazewski, MD, lead physician at Penn Family Medicine Gibbsboro. “In patients who are severely affected and have symptoms like bleeding, abdominal pain, and abnormal imaging or endoscopy, the diagnosis is fairly easy to make. However, many patients have subtler symptoms."
Some guidelines for what is going on in your gut
The only way to get a definitive diagnosis is to see your doctor. That said, here are some general guidelines that can point to what’s going on in your gut.
What exactly is Crohn's Disease?
First identified in 1932, Crohn’s disease falls into a category of illnesses called inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD). The inflammation of Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the GI tract, from the mouth to the behind.
The symptoms of Crohn’s disease usually begin between ages 13 and 30, and may include some or all of the following:
- Pain and cramping in your abdomen
- Weight loss
- Bleeding from the rectum
- Experiencing urgent needs to have bowel movements
- A feeling that you haven’t emptied your bowels completely
- Low appetite
- Sweating at night
- Unusual menstrual cycles
- Short height
In those with IBD, the body’s immune system goes into overdrive. It attacks normal bacteria found in the GI tract , generally causing long-term damage. The intestinal walls can become inflamed, swell up, and thicken with scar tissue.
This creates a narrower passageway for food to pass through and can interfere with digestion. Sores in the intestines can also grow into fistulas —abnormal connections and passageways within the intestines—or expand to other organs, such as the vagina, bladder, or skin. Additionally, Crohn’s disease can lead to holes in the intestinal walls.
What causes Crohn’s disease? Researchers aren’t sure, but they’re studying environmental and genetic links .
How are Crohn's Disease symptoms different from those of other gastric diseases?
Actually, there’s a lot of overlap of patients experiencing all or some symptoms of these common gastrointestinal issues:
Celiac Disease— An inability to tolerate wheat gluten, a type of protein found in wheat
- Abdominal pain
- Short height
- Sores in the mouth
- Irregular menstrual periods
Ulcerative Colitis — A disease of the large intestine involving inflammation, sores, and oozing pus and mucous
- Pain and cramping in the abdomen
- Diarrhea and bloody stool
- Loose bowels and an urgent need to have bowel movements
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) — Discomfort or a disturbance in the bowels (unlike those with inflammatory bowel disorders, IBS patients show no sign of colon inflammation or disease)
- Pain in the abdomen
How can I tell the difference?
Seeing a doctor is the only way to know if you have Crohn’s disease. The physician will take a full medical history and perform a medical exam, including blood tests and bowel movement samples. They also might run you through a series of tests, such as an X-ray of the colon.
If you’re diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, your doctor might put you on bowel rest, a period of a few days to several weeks in which you limit your intake to nutritional liquids. This can help your intestines heal.
Your doctor also might recommend a nutritional plan that is:
- Low in fiber, fat, and salt
- Rich in high-calorie foods to help keep your weight up
- Free of dairy products , if you have trouble digesting them
Those with Crohn’s disease can also benefit from:
- Staying away from carbonated drinks
- Eliminating high-fiber foods from their diets, like popcorn, nuts, and vegetable skins
- Eating smaller amounts of food more frequently, rather than large meals
- Getting more liquids in their diet
- Keeping a log of which foods cause them the most problems
What if the dietary changes aren’t enough? Your doctor can prescribe medications that reduce inflammation, such as aminosalicylates, corticosteroids, and immunomodulators. There are also surgeries that can help relieve symptoms and improve your quality of life.
Crohn’s and other inflammatory bowel disease are serious, but treatments are available. If you’re concerned you’re developing gastrointestinal problems, make an appointment with your doctor immediately.