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11 Crohn’s Disease Symptoms You Might Be Ignoring

This inflammatory bowel disease affects more than 780,000 Americans. Here are some of the typical and atypical symptoms you need to know.

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What is Crohn’s disease?

Crohn’s disease is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of your digestive tract resulting in rectal bleeding, cramping, constipation, and more. However, symptoms are not all in your gut when it comes to Crohn’s disease. The following symptoms may not be a clear indicator of Crohn’s disease, but if you consistently suffer from any combination of these, you should consult your health care professional.

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Crohn’s symptom: Diarrhea

Usually, Crohn’s is associated with constipation so Crohn’s may not be on your radar if you have intermittent diarrhea. “This could be mistaken for stress-related symptoms, IBS, or lactose intolerance,” says Ashkan Farhadi, MD, a gastroenterologist at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.

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Crohn’s symptom: Cramping and abdominal pain

Was it something you ate? According to Dr. Farhadi, intermittent cramping and tummy aches are often interpreted as IBS, food intolerance, or indigestion. Keeping a food journal is a good start to identify foods that may trigger cramping and stomach pain associated with Crohn’s disease symptoms. (Find out which diet change can calm Crohn’s disease.)

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Crohn’s symptom: Swollen belly

More than just a bloated feeling, swelling in the belly can be one of the earliest Crohn’s disease symptoms. “This swelling will be firm and around the size of a small grapefruit,” says Aaron Braun, medical director at Signature Care Emergency Center in Houston. “Patients have reported pain ranging from mild to extreme, and abscesses can sometimes form in the area contributing to the tenderness.” (Here are the signs that your symptoms are actually irritable bowel syndrome.)

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Crohn’s symptom: Painful sores on the skin

It’s not unusual for some people with Crohn’s disease to develop certain skin conditions as well, including those causing red bumps, sores, or rashes. According to Ian Mitchell, MD, an ER physician in British Columbia, one of the conditions is pyoderma gangenosum. This condition causes painful sores that will often develop on your legs.

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Crohn’s symptom: Canker sores

According to Gina Sam, MD, an associate professor in the division of gastroenterology, department of medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, extraintestinal manifestations (when other organs are affected by inflammatory bowel diseases) such as canker sores can be a complication with Crohn’s disease. (Check out these canker sore remedies that quickly reduce inflammation.)

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Crohn’s symptom: Red eyes

A red eye that doesn’t have a yellow or green discharge could signal an inflammatory eye condition, such as uveitis, iritis, or episcleritis. “These are inflammatory eye conditions that are found in 10 percent of Crohn’s patients,” says Dr. Mitchell.

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Crohn’s symptom: Arthritis

Stiff and painful joints that seem to be worse with movement are sometimes associated with Crohn’s disease symptoms. “Twenty percent of patients with Crohn’s disease have degenerative joint disease, usually involving joints in the knees, ankles, back, hands, and shoulders,” says Dr. Morris. (Learn more times when joint pain is more serious than arthritis.)

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Crohn’s symptom: Low back pain

Speaking of achy joints, there are a variety of joints that involve the lower back and could cause pain. “This may be very subtle and be ignored for years,” says Dr. Farhadi. (Find out which everyday habits could be giving you back pain.)

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Crohn’s symptom: Tender lumps on skin

Another skin condition that is associated with Crohn’s disease is erythema nodosum. “This is a lumpy red rash to the shin,” explains Dr. Mitchell. These tender lumps range in size from a dime to a quarter.

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Crohn’s symptom: Skin tags

“Some little known signs of Crohn’s disease include large perianal skin tags and recurrent non-healing perianal fissures,” says Monika Fischer, MD, a hepatologist and gastroenterologist with Indiana University Health in Indianapolis. “Often Crohn’s disease is associated with constipation rather than diarrhea,” says Dr. Fischer. Perianal skin tags can be the result of both conditions.

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Crohn’s symptom: Anemia

Crohn’s disease can damage the lower part of the intestine, where B vitamins are absorbed. “Anemia can be caused by folate or vitamin B12 deficiency, in addition to low levels of iron,” says Sylvia Morrisa, MD, a board-certified internist in Atlanta. Anemia symptoms include fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, and headaches.

Sources
  • Crohn's and Colitis Foundation: "What is Crohn’s Disease?"
  • Sylvia Morrisa, MD, a board-certified internist in Atlanta
  • Ashkan Farhadi, MD, a gastroenterologist at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California
  • Aaron Braun, medical director at Signature Care Emergency Center in Houston
  • Ian Mitchell, MD, a renowned ER physician in British Columbia
  • Monika Fischer, MD, a hepatologist and gastroenterologist with Indiana University Health in Indianapolis
  • Gina Sam, MD, an associate professor in the division of gastroenterology, department of medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York

Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer and writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, HealthiNation, The Family Handyman, Taste of Home, and Realtor.com., among others. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center.