The colon, or large bowel, connects the small intestine to the rectum. The primary functions of the colon are absorption of water and salt and transport of fecal material to the rectum. Infection, inflammation and structural and functional abnormalities can cause different colon diseases. Physical examination and diagnostic testing help in determining the cause of colon-related symptoms, facilitating appropriate treatment.
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Diverticulosis and Diverticulitis
Weakness in the colon wall frequently leads to formation of small, pouch-like outgrowths called diverticula. The presence of diverticula in the colon is termed diverticulosis, which typically occurs in older adults and usually does not cause symptoms. Accumulation of fecal material in the diverticula, however, may cause infection and inflammation, a condition known as diverticulitis. The disorder typically causes lower left abdominal pain, corresponding to the area of the colon where diverticula most frequently form.
Other symptoms may include fever, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea or constipation. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases notes that most attacks of diverticulitis clear with antibiotics and a short-term liquid diet. Complications of diverticulitis such as the development of a hole in the colon, intestinal blockage or abscess formation require aggressive treatment, which may include surgery. A high-fiber diet can help prevent recurrent attacks of diverticulitis.
Ulcerative colitis is a form of inflammatory bowel disease, which most commonly affects young adults. Chronic inflammation in the colon and rectum leads to ulcer formation. Intestinal or rectal bleeding, abdominal pain and diarrhea are hallmark symptoms of ulcerative colitis. Anemia and weight loss commonly accompany abdominal signs and symptoms. Most people with ulcerative colitis experience periods of high-level disease activity, known as flares, interspersed with periods of minimal symptoms.
The University of Maryland Medical Center notes that anti-inflammatory medications and immunosuppressants are the primary forms of treatment for ulcerative colitis. Surgical removal of the colon eventually proves necessary in approximately 20 to 30 percent of ulcerative colitis patients.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
The Cleveland Clinic reports that irritable bowel syndrome is one of the most common of all gastrointestinal disorders. Irritable bowel syndrome is a functional disorder of the colon, meaning no structural, inflammatory or infectious abnormalities of the colon occur with the condition. Recurrent episodes of abdominal pain that subside with bowel movements are the hallmark symptom of irritable bowel syndrome. The disorder typically demonstrates diarrhea-predominant or constipation-predominant stool patterns.
The precise mechanisms that provoke irritable bowel syndrome symptoms remain an area of active medical research. Reduced consumption of gas-producing foods, increased fiber intake and use of anti-diarrheal agents or laxatives can help alleviate discomfort. Antidepressant medications and psychosocial interventions may be useful for people with irritable bowel syndrome and psychiatric illness or social stressors.