Objective: We sought to determine whether psychosocial factors influence the course of ulcerative colitis, hypothesizing that high perceived stress among patients with inactive disease will increase the risk of subsequent exacerbation.
Methods: Sixty-two patients with known ulcerative colitis were enrolled into a prospective cohort study while in clinical remission. Their perceived stress, depressive symptoms, and stressful life events were followed, along with potential confounders, for up to 45 months; exacerbation status was monitored for up to 68 months.
Results: The 27 patients who experienced an exacerbation were compared with those who remained in remission. Having a score in the upper tertile on the long-term (past 2 yr) baseline Perceived Stress Questionnaire significantly increased the actuarial risk of exacerbation (hazards ratio = 2.8, 95% confidence interval 1.1-7.2). At any given study visit, high long-term stress tripled the risk of exacerbation during the next 8 months (risk for the three tertiles, 8.3%, 16.7%, and 26.2%, p = 0.02). Shorter sleep time, briefer remission, histological activity, and use of nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs, antibiotics, or oral contraceptives also increased the medium- and/or long-term risk of exacerbation, but adjustment for these variables did not eliminate the associations with stress. Exacerbation was not associated with stressful life events, depressive symptoms, short-term (past month) perceived stress, smoking, disease extent or duration, or severity of recent course.
Conclusions: Short-term stress does not trigger exacerbation in ulcerative colitis, but long-term perceived stress increases the risk of exacerbation over a period of months to years.