There is currently no cure for Crohn's disease, and there is no one treatment that works for everyone. The goal of medical treatment is to reduce the inflammation that triggers your signs and symptoms. It is also to improve long-term prognosis by limiting complications. In the best cases, this may lead not only to symptom relief but also to long-term remission.
Anti-inflammatory drugs are often the first step in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease. They include:
Corticosteroids. Corticosteroids such as prednisone and budesonide (Entocort EC) can help reduce inflammation in your body, but they don't work for everyone with Crohn's disease. Doctors generally use them only if you don't respond to other treatments.
Corticosteroids may be used for short-term (three to four months) symptom improvement and to induce remission. Corticosteroids may also be used in combination with an immune system suppressor.
- Oral 5-aminosalicylates. These drugs include sulfasalazine (Azulfidine), which contains sulfa, and mesalamine (Asacol HD, Delzicol, others). Oral 5-aminosalicylates have been widely used in the past but now are generally considered of limited benefit.
Immune system suppressors
These drugs also reduce inflammation, but they target your immune system, which produces the substances that cause inflammation. For some people, a combination of these drugs works better than one drug alone. Immunosuppressant drugs include:
- Azathioprine (Azasan, Imuran) and mercaptopurine (Purinethol, Purixan). These are the most widely used immunosuppressants for treatment of inflammatory bowel disease. Taking them requires that you follow up closely with your doctor and have your blood checked regularly to look for side effects, such as a lowered resistance to infection and inflammation of the liver. They may also cause nausea and vomiting.
- Infliximab (Remicade), adalimumab (Humira) and certolizumab pegol (Cimzia). These drugs, called TNF inhibitors or biologics, work by neutralizing an immune system protein known as tumor necrosis factor (TNF).
- Methotrexate (Trexall). This drug is sometimes used for people with Crohn's disease who don't respond well to other medications. You will need to be followed closely for side effects.
Natalizumab (Tysabri) and vedolizumab (Entyvio). These drugs work by stopping certain immune cell molecules — integrins — from binding to other cells in your intestinal lining. Because natalizumab is associated with a rare but serious risk of progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy — a brain disease that usually leads to death or severe disability — you must be enrolled in a special restricted distribution program to use it.
Vedolizumab recently was approved for Crohn's disease. It works like natalizumab but appears not to carry a risk of brain disease.
- Ustekinumab (Stelara). This drug is used to treat psoriasis. Studies have shown that it's useful in treating Crohn's disease as well and may be used when other medical treatments fail.
Antibiotics can reduce the amount of drainage and sometimes heal fistulas and abscesses in people with Crohn's disease. Some researchers also think antibiotics help reduce harmful intestinal bacteria that may play a role in activating the intestinal immune system, leading to inflammation. Frequently prescribed antibiotics include ciprofloxacin (Cipro) and metronidazole (Flagyl).
In addition to controlling inflammation, some medications may help relieve your signs and symptoms, but always talk to your doctor before taking any over-the-counter medications. Depending on the severity of your Crohn's disease, your doctor may recommend one or more of the following:
- Anti-diarrheals. A fiber supplement, such as psyllium powder (Metamucil) or methylcellulose (Citrucel), can help relieve mild to moderate diarrhea by adding bulk to your stool. For more severe diarrhea, loperamide (Imodium A-D) may be effective.
- Pain relievers. For mild pain, your doctor may recommend acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) — but not other common pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), naproxen sodium (Aleve). These drugs are likely to make your symptoms worse, and can make your disease worse as well.
- Iron supplements. If you have chronic intestinal bleeding, you may develop iron deficiency anemia and need to take iron supplements.
- Vitamin B-12 shots. Crohn's disease can cause vitamin B-12 deficiency. Vitamin B-12 helps prevent anemia, promotes normal growth and development, and is essential for proper nerve function.
- Calcium and vitamin D supplements. Crohn's disease and steroids used to treat it can increase your risk of osteoporosis, so you may need to take a calcium supplement with added vitamin D.
Your doctor may recommend a special diet given via a feeding tube (enteral nutrition) or nutrients injected into a vein (parenteral nutrition) to treat your Crohn's disease. This can improve your overall nutrition and allow the bowel to rest. Bowel rest can reduce inflammation in the short term.
Your doctor may use nutrition therapy short term and combine it with medications, such as immune system suppressors. Enteral and parenteral nutrition are typically used to get people healthier prior to surgery or when other medications fail to control symptoms.
Your doctor may also recommend a low residue or low-fiber diet to reduce the risk of intestinal blockage if you have a narrowed bowel (stricture). A low residue diet is designed to reduce the size and number of your stools.
If diet and lifestyle changes, drug therapy, or other treatments don't relieve your signs and symptoms, your doctor may recommend surgery. Nearly half of those with Crohn's disease will require at least one surgery. However, surgery does not cure Crohn's disease.
During surgery, your surgeon removes a damaged portion of your digestive tract and then reconnects the healthy sections. Surgery may also be used to close fistulas and drain abscesses.
The benefits of surgery for Crohn's disease are usually temporary. The disease often recurs, frequently near the reconnected tissue. The best approach is to follow surgery with medication to minimize the risk of recurrence.
Many people with digestive disorders have used some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). However, there are few well-designed studies of their safety and effectiveness.
Some commonly used therapies include:
- Herbal and nutritional supplements. The majority of alternative therapies aren't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Manufacturers can claim that their therapies are safe and effective but don't need to prove it. What's more, even natural herbs and supplements can have side effects and cause dangerous interactions. Tell your doctor if you decide to try any herbal supplement.
- Probiotics. There is some evidence to suggest that some Bifidobacterium preparations may help people with Crohn's disease to maintain remission, but some studies have found no benefits for treating Crohn's disease with probiotics. Further research is necessary to determine their effectiveness.
- Fish oil. Studies done on fish oil for the treatment of Crohn's haven't shown benefit.
- Acupuncture. Some people may find acupuncture or hypnosis helpful for the management of Crohn's, but neither therapy has been well-studied for this use.
- Prebiotics. Unlike probiotics — which are beneficial live bacteria that you consume — prebiotics are natural compounds found in plants, such as artichokes, that help fuel beneficial intestinal bacteria. Studies have not shown positive results of prebiotics for people with Crohn's disease.