Stress May Worsen Crohn's Disease Symptoms

Health Professional

When doctors encounter a chronic disease, that's where they tend to put their focus, such as trying to help an organ work more effectively or to reduce the severity of symptoms. For someone with arthritis, for instance, the focus may be on reducing pain and joint damage. For someone with heart disease, the main goal may be to ensure the heart receives steady blood flow and improves the person's ability to walk around.

What often doesn't get talked about is how to cope with the stress of living with a chronic disease. The discomfort and challenges of a chronic disease can be quite stressful, and this stress, in turn, can affect the severity of the disease. A study in the journal Frontline Gastroenterology, conducted by Swiss researchers, put a spotlight on this topic.

The researchers recruited 597 people with Crohn's disease. These people were asked to take a test that measured the level of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related to their Crohn's disease. Crohn's causes inflammation in the digestive tract, which can occur at any point from the mouth to the rectum, though it usually affects the intestines. The condition can cause severe cramps, fatigue, pain, diarrhea and weight loss. People with Crohn's may have to limit their diet and be ready to get to a bathroom quickly. In short, this is a disease that can have a big impact on a person's quality of life.

In the study, 88 people had a test score that suggested they had PTSD.  The researchers then followed the study participants for a year and a half. The people whose test scores suggested they had PTSD were found to be four times more likely to have a Crohn's flare up than people whose scores were low.

So, if you've been diagnosed with Crohn's disease, be sure to get treatment for any psychological issues that may be related to the disease in addition to treatment for your digestive system.

Here are some questions you should ask your doctor:

  • Could I be showing symptoms of stress related to this disease or other factors in my life?
  • If so, could you recommend a mental health professional who focuses on people with chronic diseases?
  • Is my Crohn's disease under control as well as it could or should be?
  • If not, what can I do to help control it better?
  • Can you direct me to a support group in my area for people with Crohn's or other chronic digestive diseases?

In addition, look to your own network of friends and loved ones for support. Can you lean on your family for more help around the house? Can you talk about your problems to an old friend when your burdens seem especially heavy.

Remember that Crohn's, like so many chronic diseases, can take a toll far beyond the source of the disorder.