Crohn’s disease is an autoimmune disorder that impacts over half a million Americans. It targets the digestive system and is one of several conditions, including ulcerative colitis, known as an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Crohn’s disease is a chronic condition and many patients experience worsening symptoms over time. Additionally, people living with Crohn’s may suffer from other complications brought on by the disorder. We’ve compiled a list of complications and conditions caused by Crohn’s to give you more background on this disorder.
Conditions Caused by Crohn’s Disease
Experts believe that Crohn’s is caused by an inappropriate immune response, which means that the body’s immune system attacks the gastrointestinal system by mistake. Symptoms vary from patient to patient, partly because the disease targets different areas of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, including the large intestine, parts of the small intestine, and stomach.
Traditional symptoms of Crohn’s disease affect the digestive tract and include abdominal pain, bloody stool, diarrhea, ulcers and lesions in the bowel, weight loss, fatigue, mouth sores, and aching joints. These symptoms on their own can be debilitating and lead to potentially life-threatening situations.
However, other associated conditions are also possible. These include both local conditions (affecting just the intestines) as well as systemic conditions that affect the whole body. Conditions caused by Crohn’s disease include:
Arthritis makes your joints swell, causing them to feel painful and inflexible. Joint issues are the single most common condition caused by Crohn’s, with nearly 30% of patients experiencing it. The three main types of arthritis caused by Crohn’s disease are:
- peripheral arthritis- affects the larger joints in your arms and legs
- axial arthritis- affects your spine and lower back
- ankylosing spondylitis- a rare form of spinal arthritis
Skin problems are the second most likely complication from Crohn’s disease and can present in a variety of ways. These include:
While not necessarily serious in and of themselves, the risk of developing these conditions can be quite alarming.
Liver and Bile Duct Issues
Liver inflammation can occur either as a result of medications or because of Crohn’s itself. Low-level liver issues present as fatigue, while more serious issues include:
- fatty liver disease
Moreover, hepatitis and pancreatitis are potentially life-threatening.
Your kidneys process waste and are located near your digestive system. You may develop kidney stones, fistulas, or hydronephrosis – a condition where inflammation prevents the draining of urine and causes your kidneys to swell and scar.
Stunted Development in Children
About 20% of Crohn’s patients are children. Developing the disease at a young age can result in complications adults don’t have to face. One primary risk factor is stunted growth. In fact, children with Crohn’s are often shorter than their counterparts. Additionally, they may weigh less due to malnutrition. Children are also likely to start puberty later than expected.
Chronic inflammation can affect even seemingly disparate areas of the body, such as the eyes. Scleritis, uveitis, and episcleritis can all cause inflammation in or near the eyes. They can also impair vision and result in pain and redness.
Abdominal pain, bowel issues, and constant inflammation can all result from Crohn’s. Sometimes, this can lead to weight loss, appetite loss, and in some severe cases, malnutrition. When your intestines are unable to absorb nutrients from your food, you are less able to meet your nutritional requirements. This can lead to anemia (lack of iron), and vitamin D deficiency.
The marketplace of medications for Crohn’s is big. However, some of these meds work by blocking the immune system (immunosuppressors), which can potentially lead to cancer and increase the risk of infections. More commonly, steroids used to treat Crohn’s come with a heightened risk of bone loss. Over time, this may lead to osteoporosis and bone fractures.
Complications Caused by Crohn’s
In addition to the conditions and diseases Crohn’s causes, there are also complications that patients can expect. These include:
As Crohn’s takes its course, the thickness of your bowel walls changes, becoming scarred and narrow. This, in turn, can cause blockages where digestive materials aren’t able to flow through. Bowel obstructions can be very painful and potentially serious, and often require surgery to rectify.
Long-term inflammation can increase your likelihood of developing open sores, also known as ulcers. These can appear anywhere in your digestive system, from your mouth to your stomach.
When an ulcer grows and extends through the intestinal wall, it creates a fistula — an unexpected and unwanted connection between two different body parts. For Crohn’s patients, fistulas around the anus and in the bowel are most common. When present, they may prevent food from passing through the bowel properly.
Fissures are small tears and are more common among those who experience chronic diarrhea and difficult bowel movements. An anal fissure can lead to a fistula and infection.
When the walls of the bowel bulge and deform over time, infection is possible. A bacterial infection can generate pus, which collects in a pocket known as an abscess. These look a little like boils and can feel extremely tender. A common sign of infection is fever, so Crohn’s patients are advised to be wary of possible internal complications when suffering from a fever.
Colon cancer is more prevalent among IBD sufferers. Early detection is key, so Crohn’s patients are recommended to have routine colonoscopies at least once every ten years, if not more frequently. A colonoscopy can detect the early warning signs of cancer, as well as monitor the progression of the IBD.
What Causes Crohn’s Disease?
Many patients wonder why they are experiencing Crohn’s disease. Research suggests that there is no single cause — doctors instead believe that multiple factors play a role in the development of the illness.
As mentioned above, Crohn’s is an autoimmune disease, meaning it is a reaction of the immune system. A malfunctioning immune system detects normal, healthy bacteria in your gastrointestinal system and erroneously attacks. Specifically, this leads to inflammation and all of its consequent issues.
However, your immune system is not solely at fault. Crohn’s is known to run in families, so genes play a role too. And environmental factors can also contribute. Smoking doubles your chance of developing Crohn’s. Certain diets, such as high-fat diets, can affect your digestive system negatively, as can consistent use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen.
With so many possible symptoms, complications and associated conditions, diagnosis of Crohn’s can be tricky. Some people with Crohn’s disease may need surgery, while others are able to manage with only medication. But there is hope — while there’s no cure for Crohn’s, long-term remission is possible.
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