Ulcerative colitis (UC) is a lifelong condition that can cause -- or come along with -- other health problems, both in the digestive tract and beyond. Research has shown that having a medical team that works together on these issues is the best way to treat the condition and protect a person’s health down the road. A team of specialists will work together to help prevent and manage your symptoms. Here’s a look at some of the players:
Your primary care doctor is likely the first medical professional you’ll talk to about your symptoms. If your doctor suspects UC, they will refer you to a specialist called a gastroenterologist.
Your gastroenterologist has special training in all the organs of the digestive system, from the esophagus to the rectum. They will likely be the one to diagnose your UC, and you’ll make regular visits afterward. Gastroenterologists can do tests and procedures such as colonoscopies to look at your GI tract and prescribe medications for the condition.
Dietitians who specialize in inflammatory bowel diseases like UC are an important part of your care team. You may have a harder time getting all of the vitamins and minerals you need for good health and strong bones. This can be especially important for children as they grow. Dietitians help you and your primary care doctor spot and treat any nutrition issues before they become a serious problem. Nutrition therapy not only helps ensure you get the right nutrients, but it can even help treat inflammation in the digestive tract.
Hematologists are doctors who specialize in blood issues. Anemia, or low iron in the blood, is the most common complication of UC. It happens for two reasons: Inflammation in the intestines can make it harder for the body to absorb iron, and the bleeding that can happen during UC flares can lead to blood loss. Hematologists can help you diagnose, manage, and treat UC-related anemia.
Colorectal surgeons. Only about 1 in 5 people with UC will need surgery in the course of their disease, but it is an important treatment option if the colon shows signs of serious damage. Colorectal surgeons have been specially trained to operate on the colon and rectum.
Radiologists are trained to diagnose and treat illnesses using imaging scans of the body, such as X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs. Doctors use these tools more and more to diagnose inflammatory diseases such as UC and to look for complications, flares, and signs that the condition is getting worse. They can also do virtual colonoscopies so that you don’t have to have the regular, more invasive exam. Some of these scans (such as ultrasounds) do not use radiation, but others do. Your UC care team will weigh the options and risk level of different tests to come up with the best plan for you.
Rheumatologists. Ulcerative colitis is an autoimmune disorder. It happens when the immune system attacks the body’s healthy cells and causes inflammation. Rheumatologists specialize in treating autoimmune disorders and related health problems, such as arthritis.
Social workers. Ulcerative colitis can be an emotional, logistical, and financial challenge. Social workers can help you and your family with treatment decisions, mental health support, insurance, payment plans, and community resources.
UC can sometimes take a serious enough toll on your mental health that you need professional counseling. In fact, you’re more likely to have depression if you have ulcerative colitis. Mental health professionals can help you manage your symptoms, the stress that can come with them, grief over a loss of a “normal” life, and anxiety about what the future holds. Your care team might include a social worker who can connect you to mental health professionals when and if you or another family member has the need. Otherwise, there are resources online, like information and links from the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation at www.crohnscolitisfoundation.org/mental-health/resources-and-references.