What is the treatment for Crohn's disease?
Treatment for Crohn's disease depends on the location and severity of disease, complications, and response to previous treatment. The goals of treatment are to control inflammation, correct nutritional deficiencies, and relieve symptoms like abdominal pain, diarrhea, and rectal bleeding. Treatment may include drugs, nutrition supplements, surgery, or a combination of these options. At this time, treatment can help control the disease, but there is no cure.
Some people have long periods of remission, sometimes years, when they are free of symptoms. However, the disease usually recurs at various times over a person's lifetime. This changing pattern of the disease means one cannot always tell when a treatment has helped. Predicting when a remission may occur or when symptoms will return is not possible.
Someone with Crohn's disease may need medical care for a long time, with regular doctor visits to monitor the condition.
Most people are first treated with drugs containing mesalamine, a substance that helps control inflammation. Sulfasalazine is the most commonly used of these drugs. Patients who do not benefit from it or who cannot tolerate it may be put on other mesalamine-containing drugs, generally known as 5-ASA agents, such as Asacol, Dipentum, or Pentasa. Possible side effects of mesalamine preparations include nausea, vomiting, heartburn, diarrhea, and headache.
Some patients take corticosteroids to control inflammation. These drugs are the most effective for active Crohn's disease, but they can cause serious side effects, including greater susceptibility to infection.
Drugs that suppress the immune system are also used to treat Crohn's disease. Most commonly prescribed are 6-mercaptopurine and a related drug, azathioprine. Immunosuppressive agents work by blocking the immune reaction that contributes to inflammation. These drugs may cause side effects like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea and may lower a person's resistance to infection. When patients are treated with a combination of corticosteroids and immunosuppressive drugs, the dose of corticosteriods can eventually be lowered. Some studies suggest that immunosuppressive drugs may enhance the effectiveness of corticosteroids.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the drug infliximab (brand name, Remicade) for the treatment of moderate to severe Crohn's disease that does not respond to standard therapies (mesalamine substances, corticosteroids, immunosuppressive agents) and for the treatment of open, draining fistulas. Infliximab, the first treatment approved specifically for Crohn's disease, is an anti-tumor necrosis factor (TNF) substance. TNF is a protein produced by the immune system that may cause the inflammation associated with Crohn's disease. Anti-TNF removes TNF from the bloodstream before it reaches the intestines, thereby preventing inflammation. Investigators will continue to study patients taking infliximab to determine its long-term safety and efficacy.
Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine caused by stricture, fistulas, or prior surgery. For this common problem, the doctor may prescribe one or more of the following antibiotics: ampicillin, sulfonamide, cephalosporin, tetracycline, or metronidazole.
Diarrhea and crampy abdominal pain are often relieved when the inflammation subsides, but additional medication may also be necessary. Several antidiarrheal agents could be used, including diphenoxylate, loperamide, and codeine. Patients who are dehydrated because of diarrhea will be treated with fluids and electrolytes.
The doctor may recommend nutritional supplements, especially for children whose growth has been slowed. Special high-calorie liquid formulas are sometimes used for this purpose. A small number of patients may need periods of feeding by vein. This can help patients who need extra nutrition temporarily, those whose intestines need to rest, or those whose intestines cannot absorb enough nutrition from food.
Surgery to remove part of the intestine can help Crohn's disease but cannot cure it. The inflammation tends to return next to the area of intestine that has been removed. Many Crohn's disease patients require surgery, either to relieve symptoms that do not respond to medical therapy or to correct complications such as blockage, perforation, abscess, or bleeding in the intestine.
Some people who have Crohn's disease in the large intestine need to have their entire colon removed in an operation called colectomy. A small opening is made in the front of the abdominal wall, and the tip of the ileum is brought to the skin's surface. This opening, called a stoma, is where waste exits the body. The stoma is about the size of a quarter and is usually located in the right lower part of the abdomen near the beltline. A pouch is worn over the opening to collect waste, and the patient empties the pouch as needed. The majority of colectomy patients go on to live normal, active lives.
Sometimes only the diseased section of intestine is removed and no stoma is needed. In this operation, the intestine is cut above and below the diseased area and reconnected.
Because Crohn's disease often recurs after surgery, people considering it should carefully weigh its benefits and risks compared with other treatments. Surgery may not be appropriate for everyone. People faced with this decision should get as much information as possible from doctors, nurses who work with colon surgery patients (enterostomal therapists), and other patients. Patient advocacy organizations can suggest support groups and other information resources. (See For More Information for the names of such organizations.)
People with Crohn's disease may feel well and be free of symptoms for substantial spans of time when their disease is not active. Despite the need to take medication for long periods of time and occasional hospitalizations, most people with Crohn's disease are able to hold jobs, raise families, and function successfully at home and in society.
Can diet control Crohn's disease?
No special diet has been proven effective for preventing or treating this disease. Some people find their symptoms are made worse by milk, alcohol, hot spices, or fiber. People are encouraged to follow a nutritious diet and avoid any foods that seem to worsen symptoms. But there are no consistent rules.
People should take vitamin supplements only on their doctor's advice.
Is pregnancy safe for women with Crohn's disease?
Research has shown that the course of pregnancy and delivery is usually not impaired in women with Crohn's disease. Even so, women with Crohn's disease should discuss the matter with their doctors before pregnancy. Most children born to women with Crohn's disease are unaffected. Children who do get the disease are sometimes more severely affected than adults, with slowed growth and delayed sexual development in some cases.
National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse
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Bethesda, MD 20892-3570
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