Ulcerative colitis is a severe and potentially life-threatening form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). It causes inflammation and ulceration of the large intestine, which results in a thickening and scarring of the colon to the point where it cannot properly take in excess fluid from the feces. Patients with ulcerative colitis may experience serious complications, such as colon rupture, colon cancer, fistulas, and the formation of abscesses around the anus. A related but different form of IBD is Crohn's disease.
Symptoms of ulcerative colitis include weight loss, fatigue, loss of appetite, and fever, as well as rectal bleeding and abscess formation. Attacks can also involve bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps and pain. People suffering from ulcerative colitis may experience alternating periods of diarrhea and constipation.
The existence of ulcerative colitis is confirmed through a barium x-ray or colonoscopy, a procedure in which a tube is inserted from the anus into the colon. Because the pathological appearances of ulcerative colitis are usually characteristic, it is often readily identified and diagnosed.
The cause of this disease is unknown. 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. One popular theory at this time is that the body's immune system reacts to a virus or a bacterium by causing ongoing inflammation in the intestinal wall. 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. Some people whose attacks are triggered by certain foods are able to control the symptoms by avoiding foods that upset their intestines, such as highly seasoned foods, raw fruits and vegetables, or milk sugar (lactose).
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, as surgery is the only known cure for this condition. Unfortunately, surgery can sometimes lead to short bowel syndrome (SBS), which has its own listing for disability benefits.
Ulcerative colitis is evaluated under the disability listing for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in Social Security's listing of impairments. To qualify under the IBD listing, you need to have a diagnosis of IBD, plus a specific complication such as anemia, a bowel obstruction, perineal disease with an abscess or fistula, or a tender abdominal mass. Or, if you have lost a significant amount of weight, you can qualify under the SSA's disability listing for weight loss, which requires a BMI of 17.5 or less.
If you don't have one of the requisite complications or amount of weight loss, you can also qualify for disability benefits if you can show that your symptoms make it impossible to do full-time work. For instance, if your diarrhea requires frequent and unplanned trips to the restroom, or your fatigue and anemia prevent you from working at an acceptable pace, the SSA may agree that you are unabe to work. For more information, see our section on how Social Security evaluates your ability to work.