Crohn’s Disease: Coping with the Unpredictability of This Chronic Condition


Crohn’s disease is a chronic illness that causes inflammation of the tissues that line the digestive system. While the inflammation can affect any part of your digestive system, from the mouth to the back passage, it most commonly develops either in the large intestine (or colon) or the final section of the small intestine, also known as the ileum.

The condition is thought affect around 90,000 people in the UK and most commonly develops in people aged between 16 and 30. However, it also develops in (relatively) high numbers of people aged over 60. It is slightly more prevalent amongst women then men and is more common is white people of Jewish, European decent than any other ethic group.

The symptoms of the disease include abdominal pain, extreme tiredness, flatulence, weight loss and diarrhoea. In some cases, skin rashes, mouth ulcers and eye swelling can afflict sufferers. These symptoms do not present constantly and periods of remission (where symptoms are either entirely absent or mild at worst) can last for weeks or even months at a time.

However, whilst periods of remission are usually welcome, the contrast between periods where the symptoms are absent and when they are present can make the disease highly challenging to live with. Flare-ups can be very distressing, particularly if you have just been diagnosed with the condition, and the unpredictability of the disease only adds to the difficulty.

At present, disease can only be treated as a means of controlling symptoms rather than eliminating them entirely, scientists are trying to find out more about the condition in order to develop an effective cure. Tough this breakthrough may be some years off, the good news is that treatments are currently available can go a long way to reducing the frequency and severity of your flare-ups.

These treatments may include prescription medications, as well as changes to your diet and lifestyle choices. For example, your doctor may advise you to eat little and often. However, if your symptoms are severe, it may be necessary for you to follow an exclusively liquid diet, if only for a short period of time. 

Food intolerances are known to play a crucial role in the development of flare-ups. Scientists have found that people with Crohn’s disease have higher levels of food antibodies called IgG circulating in their bloodstream. These antibodies are believed to cause the inflammation characteristic of the disease. A recent clinical trial has revealed that the identification and removal of food intolerances can reduce diarrhoea and pain in people with Crohn’s disease. If you believe food intolerances are aggravating your digestive system, you may therefore wish to request a food IgG blood test. Often, removing the foods that cause flare-ups can take some guesswork but the results of this test will help you to determine whether fatty, spicy foods or victuals such as dairy produce are worsening your symptoms. This will aid you in determining the best IBS diet programme for your needs. 

In addition to food intolerances, stress and smoking can exacerbate your symptoms and increase your risk of developing complications of the disease. If you are suffering from stress, the use of relaxation techniques, such as slow breathing, may help you to feel better. However, if you find that you are unable to reduce your stress levels, you may wish to ask your doctor to refer to you a counsellor. If you smoke, quitting smoking will improve your outlook and may help to reduce the risk of complications and flare-ups. Your doctor will be able to assist you in accessing support from a trained smoking cessation specialist.

Other possible causes include genetics (you may be at increased risk if your parents are sufferers) and environment (the disease is much more widespread in the western world than it is in developing countries.)  

If you are unable to control Crohn’s disease through medication and diet and lifestyle changes, you may require surgery. Around 60% of people with the condition will need surgery at some point, either to repair damaged tissue or to treat complications such as fistulas (channels that develop between sections of your digestive system). While surgery will not cure Crohn’s disease, it may help to ease your symptoms.

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