What causes ulcerative colitis?
Theories about what causes ulcerative colitis abound, but none have been proven. The most popular theory is that the body's immune system reacts to a virus or a bacterium by causing ongoing inflammation in the intestinal wall.
People with ulcerative colitis have abnormalities of the immune system, but doctors do not know whether these abnormalities are a cause or a result of the disease. Ulcerative colitis is not caused by emotional distress or sensitivity to certain foods or food products, but these factors may trigger symptoms in some people.
What are the symptoms of ulcerative colitis?
The most common symptoms of ulcerative colitis are abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea. Patients also may experience
- weight loss
- loss of appetite
- rectal bleeding
- loss of body fluids and nutrients
About half of patients have mild symptoms. Others suffer frequent fever, bloody diarrhea, nausea, and severe abdominal cramps. Ulcerative colitis may also cause problems such as arthritis, inflammation of the eye, liver disease (hepatitis, cirrhosis, and primary sclerosing cholangitis), osteoporosis, skin rashes, and anemia. No one knows for sure why problems occur outside the colon. Scientists think these complications may occur when the immune system triggers inflammation in other parts of the body. Some of these problems go away when the colitis is treated.
How is ulcerative colitis diagnosed?
A thorough physical exam and a series of tests may be required to diagnose ulcerative colitis.
Blood tests may be done to check for anemia, which could indicate bleeding in the colon or rectum. Blood tests may also uncover a high white blood cell count, which is a sign of inflammation somewhere in the body. By testing a stool sample, the doctor can detect bleeding or infection in the colon or rectum.
The doctor may do a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy. For either test, the doctor inserts an endoscope--a long, flexible, lighted tube connected to a computer and TV monitor--into the anus to see the inside of the colon and rectum. The doctor will be able to see any inflammation, bleeding, or ulcers on the colon wall. During the exam, the doctor may do a biopsy, which involves taking a sample of tissue from the lining of the colon to view with a microscope. A barium enema x ray of the colon may also be required. This procedure involves filling the colon with barium, a chalky white solution. The barium shows up white on x ray film, allowing the doctor a clear view of the colon, including any ulcers or other abnormalities that might be there.
What is the treatment for ulcerative colitis?
Treatment for ulcerative colitis depends on the seriousness of the disease. Most people are treated with medication. In severe cases, a patient may need surgery to remove the diseased colon. Surgery is the only cure for ulcerative colitis.
Some people whose symptoms are triggered by certain foods are able to control the symptoms by avoiding foods that upset their intestines, like highly seasoned foods, raw fruits and vegetables, or milk sugar (lactose). Each person may experience ulcerative colitis differently, so treatment is adjusted for each individual. Emotional and psychological support is important.
Some people have remissions--periods when the symptoms go away--that last for months or even years. However, most patients' symptoms eventually return. This changing pattern of the disease means one cannot always tell when a treatment has helped.
Some people with ulcerative colitis may need medical care for some time, with regular doctor visits to monitor the condition.
The goal of therapy is to induce and maintain remission, and to improve the quality of life for people with ulcerative colitis. Several types of drugs are available.
Aminosalicylates, drugs that contain 5-aminosalicyclic acid (5-ASA), help control inflammation. Sulfasalazine is a combination of sulfapyridine and 5-ASA and is used to induce and maintain remission. The sulfapyridine component carries the anti-inflammatory 5-ASA to the intestine. However, sulfapyridine may lead to side effects such as include nausea, vomiting, heartburn, diarrhea, and headache. Other 5-ASA agents such as olsalazine, mesalamine, and balsalazide, have a different carrier, offer fewer side effects, and may be used by people who cannot take sulfasalazine. 5-ASAs are given orally, through an enema, or in a suppository, depending on the location of the inflammation in the colon. Most people with mild or moderate ulcerative colitis are treated with this group of drugs first.
Corticosteroids such as prednisone and hydrocortisone also reduce inflammation. They may be used by people who have moderate to severe ulcerative colitis or who do not respond to 5-ASA drugs. Corticosteroids, also known as steroids, can be given orally, intravenously, through an enema, or in a suppository, depending on the location of the inflammation. These drugs can cause side effects such as weight gain, acne, facial hair, hypertension, mood swings, and an increased risk of infection. For this reason, they are not recommended for long-term use.
Immunomodulators such as azathioprine and 6-mercapto-purine (6-MP) reduce inflammation by affecting the immune system. They are used for patients who have not responded to 5-ASAs or corticosteroids or who are dependent on corticosteroids. However, immunomodulators are slow-acting and may take up to 6 months before the full benefit is seen. Patients taking these drugs are monitored for complications including pancreatitis and hepatitis, a reduced white blood cell count, and an increased risk of infection. Cyclosporine A may be used with 6-MP or azathioprine to treat active, severe ulcerative colitis in people who do not respond to intravenous corticosteroids.
Anti-TNF agents & Remicade. Infliximab works by binding to tumour necrosis factor alpha. TNFa is a chemical messenger (cytokine) and a key part of the autoimmune reaction. Originally, it was assumed that infliximab works by blocking the action of TNFa by preventing it from binding to its receptor in the cell, and for the action of infliximab in rheumatoid arthritis. This still seems to be true. However, another TNFa-neutralizing medication, etanercept (Enbrel), is worse than a placebo in Crohn's disease and thus TNFa-neutralisation is not responsible for its powerful action in the latter disease. As infliximab causes programmed cell death of TNFa-expressing activated T lymphocytes, an important cell type mediating inflammation, but etanercept does not have this activity, now it is generally assumed that resolution of activated T cells by infliximab explains its efficacy in Crohn's disease.
Other drugs may be given to relax the patient or to relieve pain, diarrhea, or infection.
Occasionally, symptoms are severe enough that the person must be hospitalized. For example, a person may have severe bleeding or severe diarrhea that causes dehydration. In such cases the doctor will try to stop diarrhea and loss of blood, fluids, and mineral salts. The patient may need a special diet, feeding through a vein, medications, or sometimes surgery.
About 25 percent to 40 percent of ulcerative colitis patients must eventually have their colons removed because of massive bleeding, severe illness, rupture of the colon, or risk of cancer. Sometimes the doctor will recommend removing the colon if medical treatment fails or if the side effects of corticosteroids or other drugs threaten the patient's health.
Surgery to remove the colon and rectum, known as proctocolectomy, is followed by one of the following:
Ileostomy, in which the surgeon creates a small opening in the abdomen, called a stoma, and attaches the end of the small intestine, called the ileum, to it. Waste will travel through the small intestine and exit the body through the stoma. The stoma is about the size of a quarter and is usually located in the lower right part of the abdomen near the beltline. A pouch is worn over the opening to collect waste, and the patient empties the pouch as needed.
Ileoanal anastomosis, or pull-through operation, which allows the patient to have normal bowel movements because it preserves part of the anus. In this operation, the surgeon removes the diseased part of the colon and the inside of the rectum, leaving the outer muscles of the rectum. The surgeon then attaches the ileum to the inside of the rectum and the anus, creating a pouch. Waste is stored in the pouch and passed through the anus in the usual manner. Bowel movements may be more frequent and watery than before the procedure. Inflammation of the pouch (pouchitis) is a possible complication.
Not every operation is appropriate for every person. Which surgery to have depends on the severity of the disease and the patient's needs, expectations, and lifestyle. People faced with this decision should get as much information as possible by talking to their doctors, to nurses who work with colon surgery patients (enterostomal therapists), and to other colon surgery patients. Patient advocacy organizations can direct people to support groups and other information resources.
Most people with ulcerative colitis will never need to have surgery. If surgery does become necessary, however, some people find comfort in knowing that after the surgery, the colitis is cured and most people go on to live normal, active lives.
For additional resources, please refer to our Educational Resources page.
Additionally, you can also visit MedicineOnline.com to search for additional information about your condition