Ulcerative colitis is not the same as Crohn's disease or IBS. Here’s what you need to know about this digestive condition.
·September 13th, 2021
Ulcerative colitis is a fairly common form of inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation in the large intestine.
UC symptoms may start mild and become more severe with time, and affect the digestive system as well as potentially the skin, mouth, eyes, and joints.
There is no cure for ulcerative colitis, but symptoms can be treated with prescription medications and potentially complementary therapies like acupuncture and herbal remedies.
Working with a Registered Dietitian or Nutritionist may be helpful to develop a diet that helps keep symptoms at bay.
Ulcerative colitis is a diagnosis that sounds complicated and scary, and because of that, many people aren’t entirely sure what it is. As such, ulcerative colitis (or UC) is often mistaken for other, similar digestive disorders, such as Crohn’s disease or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
These conditions all belong to a group of disorders known as inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, but that doesn’t mean UC is the same as Crohn’s.
UC is a chronic, inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation in the digestive tract (the path food travels from the mouth to the anus). Specifically, this inflammation can be found in the large intestine (also called the colon), causing irritation and open sores, or ulcers. There are four subtypes of ulcerative colitis:
Ulcerative Proctitis: The mildest form of UC, where inflammation is confined to six inches or less of the rectum (the final segment of the colon, which ends at the anal opening).
Proctosigmoiditis: Inflammation in the rectum and the sigmoid colon (the “S” shaped portion of the colon prior to the rectum).
Left-Sided Colitis: Inflammation from the rectum, through the sigmoid colon, and up the descending colon (the portion that runs along the left-hand side of the body).
Pancolitis: Inflammation of the entire colon.
A person may be diagnosed with one type of UC, then obtain another diagnosis if the inflammation spreads. It’s important to work with a qualified medical professional to obtain an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan as well as attend follow-up appointments to ensure the colitis has not spread.
How many people have ulcerative colitis?
An estimated 600,000 to 900,000 Americans are affected by ulcerative colitis, and it impacts men and women equally. Symptoms usually start between ages 15 and 30. Also commonly diagnosed are those between ages 50 and 70. The chances of developing UC may be slightly higher for those of Jewish descent, though no ethnicity is exempt.
Symptoms of ulcerative colitis
Ulcerative colitis symptoms often appear mild at first and worsen with time. These common symptoms often include and/or progress to:
These symptoms may progress gradually, with long periods of remission, or quickly; in some cases, symptoms escalate rapidly, requiring emergency treatment. Though it may be uncomfortable or unpleasant to discuss bowel movements, it is necessary to address symptoms early on and prevent their escalation.
Medical professionals are just that – professionals. Talk of bodily functions is not uncomfortable for doctors and nurses, especially when the focus is on getting you an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan to bring relief.
How is ulcerative colitis diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider may begin by first ruling out other conditions, such as an infection or parasites, that may be causing your symptoms. If definitive testing rules out those causes, an endoscopy may be ordered to observe the condition of the gastrointestinal tract.
In this procedure, a thin, flexible, lighted tube with a small camera is inserted into the anus. During the procedure, your doctor can view inflammation in the colon as well as also take small samples of tissue (known as a “biopsy”) for laboratory analysis.
Your doctor may also order blood tests to check iron levels in your blood. Low levels of iron (or anemia) can indicate bleeding in the colon or rectum.
How serious is ulcerative colitis?
Ulcerative colitis on its own is typically not fatal. If left untreated, however, a person’s risk of colon cancer can increase. According to the Chron’s and Colitis Foundation, this increased risk begins after living approximately 8 to 10 years with untreated UC.
Untreated ulcerative colitis can also lead to complications, such as:
Colon perforation (a hole in the colon)
Inflammation of the skin, joints and eyes
A rapidly swelling or ruptured colon (toxic megacolon)
Increased risk of blood clots in the legs (deep vein thrombosis) or and lungs (pulmonary embolism)
If you have been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, it is important to talk with your healthcare provider about signs of complications. If you experience a sudden change to your condition, severe abdominal pain, a high fever, severe diarrhea, or heavy rectal bleeding, seek emergency medical attention.
Is there a cure for ulcerative colitis?
Although there is no cure for ulcerative colitis, there are many effective treatments and treatment options. Anti-inflammatory drugs, immune system suppressors, and biologics (drugs that target proteins made by the immune systems) are the main treatments. Alternative treatments, such as acupuncture and moxibustion, may also be helpful when used alongside traditional medical treatment.
Acupuncture and moxibustion has been shown to improve quality of life and treatment outcomes in ulcerative colitis patients, and there have been promising studies showing certain natural remedies, such as curcumin or aloe vera, may be a good supplement to a medication regimen.
It is important to utilize these alongside traditional medicine, so you can ask your doctor for a referral to a qualified acupuncturist and/or holistic medical practitioner who is familiar with treating ulcerative colitis.
People with UC may also find it helpful to work with a registered dietitian or nutritionist to identify the foods that trigger inflammation and develop a nutrition plan to keep their symptoms at bay. Once you’ve identified foods that cause your symptoms to flare, you can choose either to avoid them or to learn new ways of preparing them that will make them tolerable.
If these treatments for UC aren’t effective, a patient may require surgery. Surgery is often seen as a last resort, used in life-threatening situations or when all other medical options have been exhausted.
Can I live a normal life with ulcerative colitis?
You can live a normal life with UC. Even though it’s a lifelong illness, the right treatment can make it possible to keep symptoms in remission for long periods of time. A team of professionals, including your doctor, nutritionist, therapist, and/or acupuncturist can help you to live comfortably with UC.
If you think you may be experiencing ulcerative colitis, the right provider can help you build a personalized plan to support your wellbeing. Connect with a credentialed expert who serves your area here.