The colon: Five highly productive feet of the human digestive system that people would rather not talk about. When functioning at its best, the colon can process nearly three pints of liquids each day into a normal amount of solids, passed anywhere from three times per day to three times per week. If you don’t fit in the “normal” category, then what? Here’s a look at a few colon diseases and how to best care for your colon.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Yogurt commercials have made irritable bowel syndrome a common term among Americans, but what do we really know about it? When a person suffers from irritable bowel syndrome, the colon is more sensitive and the muscle contracts in an abnormal fashion. This can cause symptoms including abdominal cramps, gas, bloating, constipation and diarrhea.
“These are not symptoms a person should have to live with every day,” says Dr. Charles Ulrich, visiting gastroenterologist at Redwood Area Hospital. “With proper diagnosis, treatment can vary including diet alteration, managing stress and medications.”
During our lifetime, almost all people in Western societies will experience diverticula, or little pouches or sacs on the outside of the colon, due to a low-fiber diet causing weak spots in the muscle of the bowel wall. Diverticula usually go unnoticed, but about 10 percent of people end up experiencing the noticeable symptoms of diverticulitis, when one of the sacs gets blocked and infected.
“The most common symptom of diverticulitis is abdominal pain, predominantly on the lower left side,” explains Ulrich. “The intensity of symptoms depends the degree of infection, with mild cramps turning to a more consistent severe pain and fever as the infection worsens.”
In most cases diverticulitis can be treated with non-invasive measures. Complications to diverticulitis can lead to surgery and can be life-threatening if ignored, so it is important to seek medical attention if you are experiencing bowel irregularities and pain.
Polyps and Cancer
Colon cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death in men and women combined in the United States.
Colon cancer occurs when the cells lining the colon grow and divide, usually starting as a small mushroom looking growth called a polyp. Not all polyps turn into cancer, but removing them can prevent the progression to cancer.
Colorectal screenings, such as a colonscopy, prevent cancer by finding and removing polyps before they become cancer. And if cancer is present, earlier detection can mean a chance at a longer life. There are a few different colorectal screening tests available, but a colonoscopy is the preferred strategy by most experts—especially for women, who tend to have growths deeper in the tissue that can go undetected with other testing methods.
“The thought of a colonoscopy makes some people cringe, but the test is generally painless and the risks are minimal,” says Ulrich. “More than 75 percent of patients who get colorectal cancer have no identifiable symptoms. No matter what your risk factors, anyone over the age of 50 or with a family history of colon cancer or polyps should talk to their physician about getting a colonoscopy.”
According to the Colon Cancer Alliance, the colon cancer death rate has been dropping due in part to increased awareness and screening. By finding more polyps and cancer in the earlier (local and regional) stages, it is easiest to treat. Improved treatment options have also contributed to a rise in survival rates.
There are currently more than one million colon cancer survivors alive in the United States.
Reading about the colon can help us understand common diseases, but experiencing hands-on learning can help impress the importance of colorectal screening and early detection of colon cancer.
Learn more about the colon diseases by winding through the Sanford SemiColon™, a 30 foot long, six foot tall inflatable colon coming to Redwood Falls on March 26th during the Redwood Area Hospital Community Health Fair. The event will take place at the Redwood Area Community Center from 2 p.m. – 7 p.m. The inflatable colon will be hosted by the hospital’s same-day surgery staff and Dr. Ulrich, who will speak about colon health at 5:00 p.m.
Anyone adult who walks through the colon can enter a drawing to win an iPad and other prizes.