The lowdown on colon health
If intestines were a train, the colon, which makes up the majority of the large intestine, would be the cars just before the caboose.
Groan-inducing potty humor aside, colon health is serious business. The colon is the second most common site for cancer, after the lungs, and most of us have had or will have a problem with this portion of the digestive tract.
“I would venture to say everybody, at some point in their life, will have a colon problem that they need to see the doctor about,” says Dr. Harry Papaconstantinou, a spokesman for American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons.
Here’s a look at the most common colon problems:
Colon polyps and cancer — Polyps — or abnormal growths — are sometimes benign, while others develop into cancer, so it's standard practice to extract them using a tiny lasso-like snare. "If we can identify polyps and remove them, we can significantly decrease the risk of someone developing colon cancer," Papaconstantinou says.
Diverticular disease — This afflicts about half of all Americans by age 60, involving small, balloon-like pockets that develop in the colon wall. These can become infected, triggering inflammation, called diverticulitis, and cause pain, fever and constipation. To prevent the disease from progressing: Try a cereal high in fiber and eat lots of fruits and veggies.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease — Crohn's disease, which inflames the entire digestive tract, and ulcerative colitis — named for the ulcers, or sores, that form on the colon and rectum — affect about 1.4 million Americans. Medications can relieve symptoms such as diarrhea, but there's no cure for Crohn's. For people with ulcerative colitis who don't respond to medical therapy, removal of the colon is considered a cure.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome — Not to be confused with inflammatory bowel disease, this disorder is characterized by abdominal pain, bloating and diarrhea. Dietary changes, stress management and medications are generally sufficient to control symptoms.
Constipation — Characterized by infrequent bowel movements — less than three in a week — this affects most people at some point, Papaconstantinou says. Changes in diet — again, more fiber, less fat — and exercise will usually, ahem, get things moving. If the problem persists, consult your doctor.
Testing for colon cancer — Health experts recommend anyone 50 or older get screened regularly for colorectal cancer. That includes having a colonoscopy every 10 years and a sigmoidoscopy — a procedure to see inside the rectum and the last one-third of the colon — every five years. If you opt for a fecal occult blood test, or FOBT, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises you use a high-sensitivity home test requiring multiple stool samples. Follow up any positive test results with a visit to the doctor.