Ulcerative colitis is a disease that falls under the umbrella term of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs). These diseases are characterized by inflammation in the digestive tract. Ulcerative colitis affects the colon (most often the lower part), causing ulcers in the lining of the rectum and colon and leading to inflammation, bleeding, and diarrhea. This condition can be difficult to diagnose because of the similarity of its symptoms to other IBDs.
Ulcerative colitis usually begins between the ages of 15 and 30. It tends to run in families and affects men and women equally. Approximately 170,000 Canadians suffer from some form of inflammatory bowel disease and Canada is believed to have the highest occurrence of IBD. Whites and individuals of Jewish descent tend to have an increased incidence of IBDs.
The most common symptoms of ulcerative colitis are abdominal pain and diarrhea. As this condition progresses, added symptoms appear, such as anemia, tiredness, weight loss, skin lesions, and joint pain. Symptoms may develop outside of the colon and lead to other conditions such as liver disease, eye problems, and osteoporosis. Frequently, these symptoms subside once the colitis is under control.
The direct cause of ulcerative colitis is not clearly known. Emotional stress does not cause this condition, as once believed, but it may aggravate it. As well, eating certain foods may trigger symptoms. Moreover, research has shown that people with ulcerative colitis have an immune system that appears to react strongly to bacteria in the digestive tract, although bacteria are a normal component of the digestive tract.
Several options are available for controlling the symptoms. Drug therapy is frequently the starting point for treatment and often induces a long remission before symptoms reappear. At the very least, drug therapy can control the symptoms and allow an improved quality of life. Occasionally, individuals may experience particularly difficult symptoms and require hospitalization until their condition is stable.
When all other treatment options are exhausted, surgery is recommended. The type of surgery required will depend on the individual case. One option is complete removal of the colon, which will leave the individual with an ileostomy. An ileostomy is performed when a surgeon creates a small opening in the abdomen called a stoma and attaches the end of the small intestine (the ileum) to it. Waste leaves the body through the stoma and is collected in an external appliance, which the patient empties as necessary.
Individuals who suffer from IBD for many years may be at increased risk of developing colon cancer. As a result, these individuals should be monitored closely and have a colonoscopy every year. Ulcerative colitis can be a devastating condition to live with and can greatly affect a person’s self-esteem. Therefore, counselling and support groups may assist the individual to successfully live with this lifelong condition.