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Treatment for Crohn’s disease may include drugs, nutrition supplements, surgery, or a combination of these options. The goals of treatment are to control inflammation, correct nutritional deficiencies, and relieve symptoms like abdominal pain, diarrhea, and rectal bleeding. At this time, treatment can help control the disease by lowering the number of times a person experiences a recurrence, 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.
Anti-Inflammation Drugs. 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-containing drugs include nausea, vomiting, heartburn, diarrhea, and headache.
Cortisone or Steroids. Cortisone drugs and steroids—called corticosteriods—provide very effective results. Prednisone is a common generic name of one of the drugs in this group of medications. In the beginning, when the disease it at its worst, prednisone is usually prescribed in a large dose. The dosage is then lowered once symptoms have been controlled. These drugs can cause serious side effects, including greater susceptibility to infection.
Immune System Suppressors. Drugs that suppress the immune system are also used to treat Crohn’s disease. Most commonly prescribed are 6-mercaptopurine or 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 corticosteroids may eventually be lowered. Some studies suggest that immunosuppressive drugs may enhance the effectiveness of corticosteroids.
Infliximab (Remicade). This drug is the first of a group of medications that blocks the body’s inflammation response. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the drug 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 a TNF substance. Additional research will need to be done in order to fully understand the range of treatments Remicade may offer to help people with Crohn’s disease.
Antibiotics. 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.
Anti-Diarrheal and Fluid Replacements. 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 to be fed intravenously for a brief time through a small tube inserted into the vein of the arm. This procedure can help patients who need extra nutrition temporarily, those whose intestines need to rest, or those whose intestines cannot absorb enough nutrition from food. There are no known foods that cause Crohn’s disease. However, when people are suffering a flare in disease, foods such as bulky grains, hot spices, alcohol, and milk products may increase diarrhea and cramping.
Two-thirds to three-quarters of patients with Crohn’s disease will require surgery at some point in their lives. Surgery becomes necessary when medications can no longer control symptoms. Surgery is used 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. Surgery to remove part of the intestine can help people with Crohn’s disease, but it is not a cure. Surgery does not eliminate the disease, and it is not uncommon for people with Crohn’s Disease to have more than one operation, as inflammation tends to return to the area next to where the diseased intestine was removed.
Some people who have Crohn’s disease in the large intestine need to have their entire colon removed in an operation called a colectomy. A small opening is made in the front of the abdominal wall, and the tip of the ileum, which is located at the end of the small intestine, 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.
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.