An evaluation of the significance of microscopic colitis in patients with chronic diarrhea

J Clin Invest. 1985 May;75(5):1559-69. doi: 10.1172/JCI111861.


Some patients with chronic idiopathic diarrhea have an apparent nonspecific inflammation of colonic mucosa, even though their colons appear normal by barium enema and colonoscopy. This has been referred to as microscopic colitis. However, the significance of this finding is unclear, because the ability of pathologists to accurately distinguish mild degrees of abnormality has not been established. Furthermore, even if the mucosa of these patients is nonspecifically inflamed, it is not known whether this is associated with deranged colonic function that could contribute to the development of chronic diarrhea. To assess these questions, we first examined colonic biopsy specimens in a blinded fashion, comparing biopsy results from patients with microscopic colitis with biopsy specimens from subjects in two control groups. This analysis revealed that colonic mucosa from six patients with microscopic colitis was in fact abnormal. For example, their mucosa contained an excess of both neutrophiles and round cells in the lamina propria, cryptitis, and reactive changes. These and other differences were statistically significant. Second, colonic absorption, measured by the steady state nonabsorbable marker perfusion method, was severely depressed in the patients. For example, mean water absorption rate was 159 ml/h in normal subjects and was reduced to only 26 ml/h in six patients with microscopic colitis. Results of net and unidirectional electrolyte fluxes and of electrical potential difference suggested that colonic fluid absorption was abnormal because of reduced active and passive sodium and chloride absorption and because of reduced Cl/HCO3 exchange. Small intestinal fluid and electrolyte absorption was abnormally reduced in two of the six patients, suggesting the possibility of coexistent small intestinal involvement in some of these patients. We conclude that nonspecific inflammation of colonic mucosa is associated with a severe reduction of colonic fluid absorption, and that the latter probably contributes to the development of chronic diarrhea.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Biopsy
  • Body Water / metabolism
  • Chronic Disease
  • Colitis / complications
  • Colitis / metabolism
  • Colitis / pathology*
  • Colonoscopy
  • Diarrhea / complications*
  • Diarrhea / metabolism
  • Electrolytes / metabolism
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Ileum / metabolism
  • Intestinal Absorption
  • Jejunum / metabolism
  • Male
  • Middle Aged


  • Electrolytes