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A colectomy, or large bowel resection, is a type of surgery sometimes used in the treatment of diseases of the large intestine, such as ulcerative colitis (UC).

Surgery for UC isn’t as common as it once was. However, it’s estimated that 1 in 4 people with this type of IBD may require surgery if medications and lifestyle changes aren’t enough to manage the symptoms of UC.

Learn more about the benefits and risks of a colectomy for surgery as well as what may be involved with this procedure.

A type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), UC affects the large intestine, which consists of three parts:

  • the colon, the main digestive portion of the large intestine
  • the rectum, the area between your colon and anus that holds stool
  • the anus, the opening at the end of your colon

A colectomy is the surgical removal of your colon or entire large intestine. This procedure is intended to remove severely inflamed or damaged portions of your colon.

There are several types of colectomy your doctor may consider:

  • Proctocolectomy. This involves removal of the colon, rectum, and anus.
  • Subtotal (partial) colectomy. This involves removal of either the ascending colon (attached to your small intestine on the right side of your abdomen) or descending colon (attached to your rectum on the left side).

Which type you may require depends on:

  • whether you have partial or total UC (pancolitis)
  • the extent of damage and inflammation to your large intestine

The purpose of a colectomy is to remove the diseased portions of the large intestine so that you may experience fewer flare-ups and complications.

A colectomy is usually considered a last resort for UC when other treatment measures haven’t helped address or manage symptoms of UC.

A long-term study published in 2012 found that:

  • 7.5 percent of people with UC needed a colectomy after 5 years
  • 14.8 percent needed one after 20 years.
  • men had an overall higher chance of needing surgery for UC

Reasons for surgery

The most common reasons for surgery for UC include:

  • frequent flare-ups that can cause symptoms severe enough to interfere with your daily life, including severe abdominal pain, fatigue, weight loss, and mucus-filled or bloody stools
  • acute symptoms that don’t respond to medications as before, as these can be a sign of a rapid enlargement of your colon (toxic megacolon) and cause symptoms like dehydration, fever, and bloody diarrhea
  • holes, tears, or severe damage to the colon
  • severe or heavy rectal bleeding
  • cases of colon cancer from total UC
  • delayed diagnosis when UC is discovered after hospitalization for acute symptoms

UC may only be resolved with a colectomy if your entire large intestine is removed. One advantage to a proctocolectomy is that you would also no longer be at risk for developing colon cancer.

Without insurance, a colectomy may run over $30,000. The exact cost also depends on the type of surgery you’re having, with open surgeries being more expensive.

A colectomy for UC is typically covered by health insurance. But you should call your insurance provider ahead of time to determine what out-of-pocket costs you should expect, if any.

Keep in mind that fees related to your hospital stay and the anesthesiologist are separate from those paid to a surgeon.

The benefits of a colectomy generally outweigh the risks.

But talk to a doctor first about possible risks that have been associated with colectomy for UC, such as:

If your UC colectomy is planned (not an emergency surgery), talk with a doctor about how you can prepare for your procedure. They may make the following recommendations:

  • Gain weight before surgery with a liquid diet if a doctor considers your bodyweight too low.
  • Stop smoking, if you do smoke.
  • Stop taking blood-thinning medications, herbs, or supplements, and tell the doctor or surgeon in advance about any over-the-counter medications you take and give a full list of prescriptions.
  • Clear out your bowels the day before surgery with either a strong laxative or enema (the exact type is usually recommended by a doctor).
  • Drink plenty of fluids right before your surgery or follow a liquid diet (if recommended by a doctor).
  • Avoid eating or drinking anything after midnight before your surgery.

Partial/subtotal colectomy

Also known as a “partial” colectomy, a subtotal colectomy removes a section of your large intestine — primarily the colon. The goal is to remove sections that may be affected by fistulas or other damaged portions.

A partial colectomy may consist of either open surgery or a laparoscopic colectomy. With both types, your doctor will remove diseased sections of your large intestine and then reconnect the non-diseased portions together.

The key difference is the length of incisions made.

Laparoscopic colectomies require smaller incisions because your surgeon uses a camera inside your abdomen to view the inside of your body. An open surgery creates incisions up to eight inches long so that your surgeon can fully view the entire surgical area.

Proctocolectomy

A proctocolectomy is the removal of your entire large intestine. This surgery is performed in cases of severe large intestinal damage from IBD.

The procedure may be done in conjunction with an ileostomy. This is done by creating a new opening in your body called a stoma to help pass stool. You will need to wear a removable ostomy pouch to collect your stool.

Another type of proctocolectomy removes the rectum and colon but not the anus. Instead of an ostomy pouch, your surgeon will create an internal version to help with the elimination of waste.

You may notice immediate improvements in your UC symptoms following a colectomy.

But as with any major surgery, you’ll need to take time off to recover and reduce the risk of infections and bleeding. You’ll also have pain in your abdomen due to the incisions.

A doctor may recommend a liquid or soft food diet for a few days after your procedure. They may also advise against exercising for at least 6 weeks. You may consider taking a few weeks off work or opt for a work-from-home option, if available.

It may take up to 1 year to fully recover from a proctocolectomy. You may experience multiple bowel movements per day for several months.

After you’ve recovered from a colectomy for UC, you should be able to engage in your normal recreational and daily activities. In some cases, you may find that you can increase activity levels due to the absence of UC symptoms.

At first, you may feel self-conscious about wearing an ostomy bag as you’re getting used to it. But most ostomy bags are sleek enough to fit under clothing and aren’t visible to other people.

To reduce the risk of dehydration and loose stools, it’s important that you drink enough fluids throughout the day. Eating high-pectin foods may also help. Bananas, applesauce, and carrots are all good sources of pectin.

If your UC is worsening despite treatment, your doctor may recommend a colectomy to remove some or all of your large intestine. The surgery is also used in emergency situations, such as with cancer or severe damage to the colon.

Overall, the outlook for colectomy for UC is positive, with studies showing no significant reduction in quality of life compared to people without UC.

The benefits of having this surgery may far outweigh the possible changes in urinary and stool habits along with changes in sex life.

It’s important to thoroughly discuss the benefits and risks of surgery with a doctor and how this may impact your type of UC. See a medical professional right away if you’re experiencing a flare-up that’s not responding to your usual medications.