You've been having abdominal cramps and diarrhea, sometimes severe. Your doctor suspects that you have ulcerative colitis, one of the irritable bowel diseases that have no specific cause. This is something that could go away and never return, or be a constant part of your life. Here is what you need to know about this bowel disease and the treatments that allow you to live with it.
The Beginnings of Ulcerative Colitis
Doctors don't know what causes the initial onset of this bowel disease, but they do know what triggers the symptoms. The tissue wall of the large intestine becomes irritated and swollen. Sometimes it may bleed into the intestine. Stress, smoking and certain foods are known to aggravate the condition. But, they aren't consistent. Eating a spicy meal one day may trigger an attack, but not on another day.
The symptoms of an ulcerative colitis flare up include:
- abdominal pain and cramps of varying levels
- blood in the stool
- bleeding at the rectum
Diagnosing Ulcerative Colitis
Your doctor will initially take stool samples and look for blood or tissue that has sloughed off of the intestinal wall. They may do a blood test to see if you are anemic from the loss of blood in the intestine.
The most definitive test is a colonoscopy. This procedure uses a small tube inserted into your rectum and up into the large intestine. The tube has a small camera on the end through which your doctor can see the tissue in the colon and intestine. They will see directly any irritated, inflamed and bleeding tissue.
The procedure also allows the taking of a tissue sample to be sent for analysis and confirmation of the ulcerative colitis diagnosis. This helps your doctor rule out similar irritable bowel diseases such as diverticulitis and Crohn's disease.
Treating Ulcerative Colitis
Since the cause of this disease is unknown, the treatment is focused on controlling the symptoms and making you more comfortable. Treatment is divided into short-term relief to reduce symptoms from a current flare up and long-term management to help you live with the disease.
Medication - Anti-inflammatory drugs target the irritated intestinal wall. Once the inflammation has been controlled, most of the uncomfortable symptoms, such as diarrhea and cramps, go away. There are a number of medications that your doctor can try, so it may take some time to find the right solution for your condition.
Surgery - If you don't respond to medication and the symptoms increase, surgery may be required. The portion of the intestine containing the damaged tissue is removed.
Diet changes - Your doctor will help you to identify the foods that trigger an episode so you can limit them in your diet or avoid them altogether. Some foods known to trigger ulcerative colitis symptoms include:
- High fiber foods such as bread and pasta
- Whole grains such as brown rice and oats
- Nuts and seeds including peanuts and cashews
- Beans such as chick peas, lentils and peas
- Fruit with small seeds that are difficult to digest
Lifestyle Changes - Along with the diet changes, other changes in your daily habits will reduce the chance of an attack. Some of these include:
- reducing your stress levels
- stopping smoking
- limiting alcohol intake
The challenge with any diet or lifestyle changes is that people respond differently to these triggers. One person may be able to eat pasta and never have a problem, while a plate of spaghetti will make another person miserable. You'll work through all of these changes with your doctor to find the ones to which you are most sensitive.