How Common Is An Enlarged Colon?

An enlarged colon, also called a megacolon, is not a particular common disorder, yet is one that could strike anyone due to inflammation, a parasitic invasion of the colon, or as one of the symptoms of a systemic disease. In rather rare cases, an enlarged colon is congenital.

The Colon - The colon is one of the organs making up our digestive system, which extends from the throat to the anus. The colon is not a straight organ through which food and digestive fluids pass, but is instead rather U-shaped. Beginning at the end of the small intestine, the colon, or large intestine, first ascends vertically, then transverses horizontally across the abdominal cavity, and finally descends vertically to the rectum. The colon is approximately 5 feet long in the average sized adult.

Children can be born with an abnormal colon, either one which is enlarged, or one which misshapen or does not lie in the correct position. Sometimes, as a fetus develops the colon, which is initially in a different position or location than it will be at birth, gets twisted or turned in an odd way, or for reasons imperfectly understood, becomes enlarged.

When a person is born with a normal colon, the chances are, except for minor irritation, inflammation, or the development of a cancer, it will remain healthy and normal throughout that person's life. Sometimes however, a megacolon or enlarged colon may for some reason develop.

Constipation, Inflammation, And Disease - One of the more common causes is constipation, where the accumulation of hard feces may cause the colon to dilate. This more often happens in children than in adults. A laxative is the usual treatment unless the condition is particularly severe. Another cause is inflammation of the colon, a condition best known as colitis, which in turn may be brought about by another disease or disorder, such as Parkinson's disease or Crohn's disease. It sometimes happens that an enlarged colon also becomes infected. When this occurs the condition is called a toxic megacolon.

Chagas disease - A parasite is responsible for yet another cause of an enlarged colon. This parasite is found in the feces of the assassin bug, native to Central and South America. If the feces contaminates food, and that food is ingested by a human, a parasitic disease known as Chagas disease may result. Not all of those who contract the disease will suffer from an enlarged colon, but about 1 in 5 will.

Hirchspring's Disease - Hirchspring's disease is the other major cause of an enlarged colon. Hirchspring's disease is a congenital disease, brought about when certain nerve cells in the colon are not present when a child is born. The absence of these nerve cells, the ganglion cells results in chronic constipation in the newborn. Treatment is normally accomplished by surgery, where that part of the colon which is lacking the nerve cells is replaced by a portion of the colon which has the needed nerve cells.

Symptoms - When a person develops an enlarged colon, the symptoms will usually consist of a combination of constipation, abdominal bloating, and pain. In the case of a toxic megacolon, the above symptoms will likely be accompanied by fever, a deficiency of potassium in the blood, and the person could possibly go into shock.

Treatment - In milder cases of an enlarged colon, treatment may consist primarily of the use of laxatives along with changes in dietary habits. If a toxic megacolon is the diagnosis, anti-inflammatory medications may be prescribed, together with corticosteroids. Sometimes removal of impacted feces may be necessary using anorectic instruments, and in very severe cases, corrective surgery may be necessary. In an extreme case, it may be necessary to remove all or part of the colon through a procedure called a total abdominal colectomy.

Prevention - While it is not possible to prevent a congenital enlarged colon, one can avoid an onset of the condition due to other causes by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and eating plenty of foods that are rich in fiber. Early treatment of other conditions such as colitis and inflammatory bowel disease can also often head off an incidence of an enlarged colon.

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