Lifelong Medical Problems

John F. Kennedy was plagued by health problems for much of his life. In 1934, doctors diagnosed Kennedy with a condition called colitis. Colitis causes inflammation in the lining of the colon. This inflammation results in the development of ulcers in the lining of the large intestine and is responsible for effectively eliminating the cells that line the colon. As a result, Kennedy experienced frequent diarrhea since the colon was forced to empty more than usual.

What is the cause of colitis?

Doctors are unclear about the exact cause of colitis, but it is believed that the condition is the result of the immune system's reaction to the presence of a virus or bacteria. This, in turn, causes the inflammation in the lining of the colon.

To treat Kennedy's colitis, he was given a steroid treatment beginning in 1937. One year later, he began suffering from back pain. According to biographer Robert Dallek, Kennedy's back condition and stomach ulcer were a result of the steroid treatment. Dallek asserts that Kennedy's erratic use of steroids caused not just his back and ulcer conditions, but was also the likely cause of his Addison's disease. Another explanation is that Kennedy's Addison's disease could have been inherited, especially since his sister Eunice also suffered from the condition.

Although Kennedy was receiving the necessary treatment for his medical conditions when he became the president, he still suffered from the side effects. Abdominal problems, diarrhea, and back pain plagued his daily existence. Kennedy's medication included daily injections of codeine and procaine for pain, and cortisone to treat his Addison's disease. It was the back pain that gave him the most problems. At times the pain was so intense that simple acts of walking up or down the stairs and bending caused great discomfort. To lessen the pain and strengthen his back, he wore a back brace and often needed the assistance of crutches to walk.

President Kennedy.

Photo credit: Robert Knudsen, White House/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Over time, Kennedy increasingly focused less on the pain and more on the possibility that his health condition would eventually be uncovered to the public. Around the same time that Johnson told the press that Kennedy had Addison's disease, Kennedy's bag of medication was misplaced. This occurrence led to increased security measures in regard to his medical condition. Once he was president, his medical records were hidden safely away in a vault and the several doctors who treated him for other ailments were often in the dark regarding the entire extent of his medical condition.

By the end of his life, Kennedy had made substantial progress in alleviating his ailments. When one of his several doctors informed him that if he continued on with his pain treatment, he could expect to one day end up in a wheelchair, Kennedy began intense exercise therapy. With a new regimen of swimming, his pain decreased and he became much more mobile than he had been.

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