Ulcerative colitis is a chronic (long-term) inflammatory disease. It affects the lining of the large intestine, or colon, and rectum. The rectum is the last section of the colon and is located just above the anus. People with ulcerative colitis have tiny ulcers and abscesses in their colon and rectum. These flare up periodically and cause bloody stools and diarrhea. Ulcerative colitis may also cause severe abdominal pain and anemia. Anemia is marked by low levels of healthy red blood cells.
Ulcerative colitis has alternating periods of flare-ups and remission. During remission the disease seems to have disappeared. The periods of remission can last from weeks to years.
The inflammation usually begins in the rectum. It then spreads to other segments of the colon. How much of the colon is affected varies from person to person. If the inflammation is limited to the rectum, the disease is called ulcerative proctitis.
Ulcerative colitis closely resembles Crohn's disease. Crohn's is another inflammatory bowel disease. Often the only thing that distinguishes ulcerative colitis is that it affects only the colon. Crohn's may affect any part of the digestive system, including the mouth. Crohn's disease also is particularly destructive to the small intestine, known as the ileum.
A doctor may order several different types of tests when considering ulcerative colitis as a diagnosis. These include:
Stool sample tests
Imaging tests, such as a CT scan
How Common Is Surgery for Ulcerative Colitis?
About 25% to 40% of people with ulcerative colitis will have to have surgery to remove their colons. The reasons that surgery becomes necessary include:
Medical treatment -- for instance, drug therapy -- fails to provide results.
The patient experiences a severe, sudden onset of the disease.
There is extensive bleeding.
Treatment causes side effects severe enough to compromise the patient's health.
Toxic megacolon has set in. In this dangerous condition, the muscles of the large intestine are dilated, and the colon can rupture.
In some cases, surgery to remove the colon is recommended if other treatments do not work or if the side effects of medications are harming the patient.
What Types of Surgery Can Treat Ulcerative Colitis?
Surgery to remove the entire colon is called a colectomy. Surgery to remove both the colon and rectum is a proctocolectomy. Both can be used to treat ulcerative colitis. These surgeries are also performed to eliminate the threat of colon cancer. Colon cancer is common in people with ulcerative colitis. Proctocolectomy is considered the standard treatment when surgery for ulcerative colitis is needed.
If the entire colon is removed, the surgeon may create an opening, or stoma, in the abdominal wall. The tip of the lower small intestine is brought through the stoma. An external bag, or pouch, is attached to the stoma. This is called a permanent ileostomy. Stools pass through this opening and collect in the pouch. The pouch must be worn at all times.