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What is Crohn's disease?

Crohn's disease is a chronic disorder of unknown origin characterized by inflammation of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The disease is named for Dr. Burrill B. Crohn, who first described the disease in the medical literature in 1932 with his colleagues, Dr. Leon Ginzberg and Dr. Gordon D. Oppenheimer. The disease was originally termed "terminal ileitis" which was frightening to patients who wrongly assumed they had a fatal (terminal) disease. "Regional ileitis" was used for a time, but has since given way to the name, "Crohn's disease".

Crohn's disease

Although any part of the GI tract can be affected, from the mouth to the anus, the area where the small intestine (terminal ileum) and colon (cecum) meet is the site most commonly involved. This inflammation can affect all the layers of the bowel wall (transmural) and can lead to a variety of symptoms including abdominal pain, diarrhea, intestinal bleeding, and weight loss. These symptoms are non-specific and can be present in many other disorders including ulcerative colitis and gastrointestinal infection. A physician will make the diagnosis of Crohn's disease after speaking with and examining the patient, and getting a number of diagnostic tests: blood tests, x-rays (radiologic imaging), and often a colonoscopy.

Colonoscopy procedure

After the diagnosis is made, patients are treated with a variety of medications, often immunomodulators or biologics (drugs that affect the immune system) with the goal of controlling the patients' symptoms and making them feel well.

There is no cure for Crohn's disease; it is a chronic illness, so the goals of therapy are to get the patient feeling back to normal, keep the patient feeling normal, and reduce the number of recurrent flares. The hope is that by achieving those goals patients are able to live normal lives without any limitations related to their disease; however, in a number of situations, surgery is required.

Because Crohn's is a chronic disease, patients need to take an active role in their treatment. Most importantly, they should not be afraid to ask questions.

Contact Information

Inflammatory Bowel Disease Program
Digestive Disease Center
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
330 Brookline Avenue
Boston, MA 02215