Crohn's and Colitis Explained

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When illness strikes, one of the questions we often ask is “How did I get this?” It’s a normal reaction, because it’s important to know what caused the sickness and what we might do in the future to avoid it.

Medicine, unfortunately, isn’t always sure about cause and effect, and the origins of some diseases just defy precise explanation. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, chronic conditions of the digestive system known as inflammatory bowel diseases – are examples.

These conditions can certainly be frustrating for patients. Their causes are unknown, no known risk factors exist, and no preventive measures can be taken to avoid them. In addition, because the symptoms may occur with other conditions, most cases of Crohn’s and colitis are diagnosed months or even years after the signs first appear.

“One thing we often try to tell patients,” says Andrew Warner, M.D., “is that there’s nothing they have done to bring this on, and there’s nothing they could have done to prevent this. Unfortunately, it’s just something that happens.”

Dr. Warner, chief of gastroenterology at Lahey Health in Burlington, presents an introduction to these two diseases in the February episode of Physician Focus with the Massachusetts Medical Society. Hosted by Lynda Young, M.D., clinical professor of pediatrics at Children’s Medical Center at UMass Memorial Healthcare in Worcester and a past president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, the program present a basic introduction to the diseases, describing the symptoms of the conditions, their similarities and differences, how they affect a person’s health and quality of life, and how they are diagnosed and treated.

Each of the conditions affects about 700,000 Americans. Men and women are affected equally, and the conditions can occur at any age. The diseases can come and go over the years and have the potential to disrupt daily living (some of the symptoms: diarrhea, rectal bleeding, abdominal cramps, bloating, urgent need of bowel movements).

Despite all of that, Dr. Warner offers good news for patients. “Most patients can have a perfectly normal life,” he adds. “Just like someone who has arthritis or asthma, you learn about the things that precipitate it, what to avoid, how to treat it, and most patients, as long as they’re under the care of a physician, can lead a normal, healthy life.”

Please join us this month on Physician Focus for a primer on the digestive disorders of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. For additional information on these conditions, patients may wish to read 100 Questions & Answers About Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis, co-authored by the show’s guest, Dr. Andrew Warner.

Photo: Lynda Young, M.D., Andrew Warner, M.D.