How to Recognize and Diagnose Crohn’s Disease in Men

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The terms “male” and "men" are used in this article to refer to people who identify as male and have typical reproductive organs of a cisgender male. We recognize that some people who identify as male do not have the same anatomy as depicted in this article.

Crohn’s disease is a chronic condition that causes inflammation in the digestive system. It is a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that typically comes with symptoms like abdominal pain, cramps, bloating, and diarrhea. While Crohn's is equally common in both sexes, there are some unique symptoms and risks that men living with Crohn's may experience.

This article provides an overview of common Crohn’s disease symptoms and discusses risks specific to people with a male anatomy.

Man listening to doctor results

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Signs and Symptoms

Crohn’s disease irritates and inflames the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), the part of the body that runs from the mouth to the anus.

Symptoms of Crohn's disease may vary among patients, but it most commonly causes GI-related symptoms, including:

Because Crohn's disease affects the immune system (the body's defense mechanism against harmful germs), it can also lead to symptoms in other parts of the body.

Additional Crohn's symptoms can involve the eyes, skin, joints, gallbladder, nervous system, and blood vessels, and may include:

It's important to be aware of all potential symptoms that could point to Crohn's disease. If Crohn's goes undiagnosed and untreated, it can result in serious risks and complications.

Crohn's Across the Sexes

Crohn's disease can affect both sexes differently. For example:

  • Women with Crohn's are more likely to experience symptoms that go beyond the gut, like joint, eye, and menstruation-related issues. They may also be diagnosed at an earlier age.
  • Men with Crohn's are more likely to be diagnosed later in life. This may contribute to the development of different Crohn's symptoms and risks like sexual dysfunction, osteoporosis, and prostate cancer.

Diagnosis

Diagnosing Crohn’s disease can sometimes be challenging because its symptoms can look similar to other digestive conditions. Plus, there’s no single test that diagnoses Crohn’s.

After reviewing your symptoms and medical history and performing a physical exam, a healthcare provider will likely run several tests and work through a process of elimination to rule out other illnesses.

Some of these diagnostic tests may include:

Crohn's vs. Ulcerative Colitis

Crohn's disease shares many symptoms with ulcerative colitis (another form of IBD), but they're not quite the same. The primary differences are:

  • Ulcerative colitis inflammation is constant and limited to the colon. Bloody stool is more common.
  • Crohn's disease inflammation is "patchy" and can occur anywhere along the GI tract. Bleeding isn't as common during bowel movements.

It may take some time, but a healthcare provider can usually distinguish between the two after imaging and testing.

Risks for Men With Crohn's

Though men are just as likely as women to develop Crohn’s disease, they may experience different symptoms and risks. Crohn's disease can impact male health uniquely through complications that involve sexual dysfunction, bone density, cancer risk, and mental health conditions.

Sexual Dysfunction

It's not uncommon for adults with Crohn's disease to experience a change in their sex drive. Specifically, studies suggest that males with IBD are likely to experience certain sexual dysfunction symptoms, including erectile dysfunction.

This is likely due to a combination of factors. Experts think the inflammation in the body caused by Crohn's can contribute to a reduction in sexual desire and function.

Additionally, side effects, medications, surgeries, and the emotional toll that comes with Crohn's can affect self-image and sexual function.

Temporary Infertility

Research suggests that patients with IBD may have some reduction in fertility, and this might especially be the case for men with Crohn's disease.

A temporary form of male infertility is caused by an ingredient in Azulfidine (sulfasalazine), a prescription medication used to treat Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. Studies show that roughly two months after stopping this medication, fertility returns.

Surgical procedures performed to treat Crohn's could also affect male fertility, particularly surgeries that involve incisions near the rectum, like proctocolectomy.

Osteoporosis

People with Crohn's disease have a greater risk for osteoporosis, a loss of bone density that can lead to fractures. This is because Crohn's patients often have multiple factors that can contribute to bone loss, including:

In the general population, osteoporosis is typically more common in older women than in men. But some research has found that men with Crohn's disease have an equal risk for osteoporosis, if not higher.

Prostate Cancer

Prostate cancer is another concern for men with IBD. One study found that men with Crohn's disease were up to five times more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer compared to other men.

Experts believe the inflammation involved in Crohn's likely plays a role here. Other possible factors may include a lack of noticeable symptoms or delayed prostate cancer screening.

Depression

The mental and emotional impact of Crohn's disease can take as much of a toll as the physical symptoms. Research has found that rates of depression—a mental illness that affects a person’s mood, thoughts, and feelings—are higher in people with Crohn’s than in the general population.

Depression seems to be more common in people living with chronic illness, due to physical, mental, and emotional challenges. In addition, medications like steroids that are used to treat Crohn's disease can sometimes prompt mood changes or depression.

Keep in mind that depressive symptoms can present differently in each person and that research shows some men may be more reluctant to seek treatment for mental health.

Help Is Available

If you or a loved one are struggling with depression, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see this National Helpline Database.

Treatment

There's currently no cure for Crohn's disease, but a number of treatment options are available to help reduce inflammation and keep your symptoms under control. These include:

  • Prescription medications
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) remedies
  • Dietary adjustments
  • Surgery
  • Complementary alternative medicine (CAM) therapies

In addition, understanding how Crohn's disease can impact men in different ways could lead to more effective treatment. The more you know about the early signs of Crohn’s disease, the quicker you may be able to seek a diagnosis and care.

Some experts are currently studying ways to implement sex-specific Crohn's management to help improve patient outcomes. This could include approaches tailored to male Crohn's patients who may be likely to experience sexual dysfunction, fertility challenges, osteoporosis, prostate cancer, or depression.

Summary

Crohn's disease is a chronic condition that affects the digestive system. While Crohn's disease appears to affect both sexes fairly equally, men living with Crohn's may face a unique set of challenges with this condition. These include issues with sexual dysfunction, temporary infertility, osteoporosis, prostate cancer, and depression.

A Word From Verywell

Crohn's disease looks and feels differently for everyone. Educating yourself on the various ways that Crohn's symptoms may present can help you take control of a potential diagnosis and your overall health. If you have any questions or concerns, speak to a healthcare provider if accessible, or check out resources like the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America, which offers local support groups throughout the United States.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • At what age do the signs of Crohn's disease typically present themselves?

    Though it can be diagnosed at any age, Crohn's disease is most commonly diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 30.

  • What are common early signs of Crohn's disease?

    The most common early signs of Crohn's disease include abdominal pain, bloating, cramping, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. Symptoms can also involve the eyes, skin, joints, and brain.

  • Is Crohn's disease curable?

    There is no cure for Crohn's disease. Although it is a chronic condition, Crohn's can be managed well with ongoing treatment.

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