Crohn's / IBD GastroIntestinal / Gastroenterology

Ulcerative colitis: Defining and treating pain

Ulcerative colitis is a chronic, inflammatory condition of the lower gastrointestinal tract. It is associated with periods where symptoms worsen causing diarrhea, bloating, discomfort, and pain. These periods are called flares.

How often a person experiences a flare varies. It could be once every few years or several times a year. In either case, identifying and managing ulcerative colitis pain is an important part of a treatment plan.


Here we will explore how people can relieve and control their ulcerative colitis pain. We also illustrate the symptoms and potential treatments.





Fast facts on ulcerative colitis pain:

  • Pain triggers may include diet and stress.

  • Frequency and severity of pain vary significantly.

  • Direct methods of treatment include anti-inflammatory drugs.

  • There are several ways to control ulcerative colitis pain. Some aim to prevent the flares while others treat the pain more directly.





Causes of ulcerative colitis pain


lady holding stomach
The cause of ulcerative colitis pain may vary and a specific description of the pain will help a doctor to diagnose and treat.


The exact cause of ulcerative colitis pain varies between individuals and may change between flares. Figuring out the exact cause of pain is one of the most important steps towards treating it.


The following are the main areas a person may experience ulcerative colitis pain:


Abdominal pain from diarrhea


Nearly all people with ulcerative colitis have diarrhea. Abdominal pain associated with diarrhea is unavoidable. This pain is felt on the left side of the trunk, across the stomach, and below the belly button.


Diarrhea cramps can range in severity. During severe cramps, normal life functions, such as talking or standing, may be limited. Once diarrhea passes, the associated cramps should pass as well.


Scar tissue


People with ulcerative colitis develop scar tissue within the digestive tract from the repeated periods of inflammation. As scar tissue grows in size, it may cause pain as material passes it.


Pain, when this happens, can range from mild to severe. The digestive tract must also work harder to pass the food and waste through the area of overgrown scar tissue, which may result in more pain.


Abdominal pain from digestion


Food passing over inflamed tissue can cause pain. Ulcerative colitis that is mostly located in the upper colon, intestines, and the left side of the bowel may increase the frequency of pain.


People with ulcerative colitis can have “noisy digestion,” meaning that sounds can be heard as food passes through the gut. The process of digesting may trigger abdominal cramps, ranging from mild to severe.




Diagnosis


Senior patient speaking with a male doctor, looking at a clipboard.
Discussing in detail the symptoms and pain with a doctor can help them to diagnose ulcerative colitis accurately.


People should be able to describe their pain to a doctor. Often, it can help to think about or even write down answers to a few questions beforehand. To help describe ulcerative colitis pain include:


  • How long has the pain been there?

  • Where is the pain felt?

  • How does it feels, both in sensation and intensity?

  • Is the pain constant or steady, or does it come and go?

  • How often is the pain felt?

  • What things seem to trigger the abdominal pain?

The more specific a person can be in describing the pain, the better able a doctor will be in determining the cause. Once the cause of pain is found, a doctor can recommend treatment.



How frequent is ulcerative colitis pain?


The frequency of the pain associated with ulcerative colitis changes. Both the cause and occurrence of flares determines this.


Someone whose pain is connected with bowel movements will feel pain when they attempt this. A person who feels pain from the condition’s inflammation or diarrhea may feel pain more frequently in the day.


People with frequent flares are much more likely to feel ulcerative colitis pain regularly. People whose flares are more spaced out will have more sporadic pain.




Controlling colitis pain


man on smart phone in the supermarket
Methods to control colitis pain include reducing stress and altering the diet.


Treating pain through prevention is the first defense against ulcerative colitis discomfort. Some methods include:


Altering the diet


Many people with ulcerative colitis eat foods that aggravate their symptoms. Some believe that altering a diet can prevent flares if the irritant foods are cut out. So, reducing or eliminating the trigger foods can help reduce pain for some people.


Reducing stress


Some individuals believe that stress plays a key role in causing flares in ulcerative colitis symptoms. Learning and using coping techniques for stress can help reduce the likelihood of flares.


Probiotics


Probiotics may help, either as a supplement or when contained in a food type. It is unclear how much help probiotics are, but the good bacteria in probiotics may aid better digestion. Consequently, probiotics could cut pain associated with ulcerative colitis flares.



Ulcerative colitis pain medication


Medication is another option to treat ulcerative colitis pain, including:


  • anti-inflammatory drugs

  • aminosalicylates

  • corticosteroids

  • immune system suppressors

  • antibiotics

  • pain relievers

  • anti-diarrheal drugs

Medication may alleviate symptoms, but it does not treat the underlying cause.




When to see a doctor


For people who have not been diagnosed, they should see a doctor if they experience symptoms for more than a few days. Symptoms of ulcerative colitis may indicate other ailments, so a doctor will need to rule out all potential causes.


When a person is diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, they should see a doctor when a flare lasts longer than 2 days. Very often, the individual and doctor will create a plan of action for when a flare occurs, so that the person knows exactly what to do when pain starts.


Any time unexplained or worse than usual pain or symptoms are experienced, a person should see their doctor.

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