Up to two million people in the United States alone suffer from varying degrees of Crohn's Disease and ulcerative colitis. Here are some fact about this debilitating condition.

Crohn's Disease, named after the physician who first described it in 1932, is an inflammatory disease of the digestive system. Although normally causing ulceration in the small and large intestines, it can affect the digestive tract anywhere between mouth and anus. Ulcerative Colitis, however, is confined solely to the colon.

Both of these conditions are collectively known as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) - they are both chronic and there is no known cure. Both tend to have periods of inactivity (remission) and activity (relapse) and most often commence during early adulthood, though they can occur at any time in life. Both men and women are affected equally.

Although it is thought that Crohn's Disease may be caused by certain strains of bacteria this is by no means certain and the definite cause is still unknown. It is not thought that diet is responsible for the disease, although diet may affect the symptoms suffered by patients with the condition. It is known, however, that Crohn's Disease is not contagious.

Common symptoms of Crohn's Disease include weight loss, frequent diarrhea and abdominal pain. Less frequent symptoms include rectal pain and bleeding, fever, loss of appetite and night sweats.

The disease tends, in its early stages, to cause small erosions, called aphthous ulcers, to appear on the inner surface of the bowel. In time these become true ulcers as they grow deeper, by then causing scarring and stiffness of the bowel. Ultimately the bowel can become obstructed as the scarring narrows it further and further and deep ulcers can perforate the bowel wall. This can release gut bacteria into the body where infection of other organs or the body cavity itself can occur.

Another complication can be caused when a fistula forms. This is a channel between the intestine and another organ caused when the bowel ulcers tunnel into another organ. These can include bladder, skin, vagina and anus. These fistulas are one of the most distressing complications for anyone suffering from this condition. Crohn's Disease can also cause complications that may or may not be related to the intestine. Although bowel blockage and colon distension can occur, other areas affected can include the lower back, eyes, joints (arthritis), spine, liver and legs. Full discussion of these conditions is beyond the scope of this article.

The disease is often diagnosed by means of Barium X-ray studies performed after the patient has taken barium meal. There are several other methods of diagnosis and these include colonoscopy, CT scanning and video capsule endoscopy, where a small capsule containing a miniature video camera is swallowed. This the sends images to a receiver and thence to an analytical computer program, allowing a close study to be made of the bowel lining.

As there is no cure for Crohn's disease, treatment goals are to induce and maintain periods of remission, improve the patient's quality of life and to reduce the side-effects of medication. The anti-inflammatory medicines used for treating the disease are similar in many ways for those used in the treatment of arthritic conditions.

To summarise, Crohn's disease is a serious condition that has no known cure. It is therefore essential that anyone who has the common symptoms of the disease - severe chronic diarrhea, vomiting, fever and weight loss - consult a doctor at the earliest opportunity. Although this cannot halt the disease, early diagnosis will greatly improve the chances of the patient having a better quality of life than if the disease were to be left undiagnosed and untreated.

All the above information is given in good faith but does not pretend to replace the professional opinion of a qualified doctor or medical practitioner.

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