Experts explain the colon condition that put the Pope in the hospital

Experts explain the colon condition that put the Pope in the hospital

Pope Francis is recovering from emergency colon surgery because of an inflamed colon, a condition also known as diverticulitis. The news startled the world and many were left with questions of what the condition is, how it can be prevented and if we all should be worried about being at risk.

Diverticulitis is the infection or inflammation of pouches that can form in your intestines, said Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center’s Dr. Jan Kaminski, a board-certified colorectal surgeon. These pouches called diverticula can show up anywhere in your intestines and typically aren’t damaging. If you just have the pouches, the condition is called diverticulosis. In fact, the incidence of diverticula rises with age so much so that over 40 percent of patients develop diverticula by the age of 60 years. And over 60 percent of patients over 80 years have diverticular disease identified.

However, it is important not to let your guard down. While having diverticulosis is rather common and seldom causes problems, it becomes diverticulitis if the pouches become inflamed and bacteria gets in the blood, which requires surgery and often, emergency surgery. Experts say about 10-25 percent of patients who develop diverticulosis will develop diverticulitis. This was the case of the Pope and why he ended up having surgery.

You may be wondering “Could the Pope’s case have been prevented?” and the answer is that there are   some behaviors you can adapt to help minimize your risk.

“The best way to prevent and keep the condition at bay is by diet and exercise,” said Dr. Kaminski. “Eating a good amount of fiber, drinking plenty of water and exercising can all help decrease your chances of getting diverticulitis.”

These measures are recommended to prevent the condition in the first place and after treatment or surgery. Most patients with diverticulosis are asymptomatic. Symptomatic diverticular disease represents a whole range of conditions ranging from mild abdominal pain and bloating to free perforation with peritonitis — or inflammation of the tissue that lines your abdomen — and sepsis.

“You can never be too careful. If something feels off, you should not hesitate to speak with your doctor,” said Dr. Kaminski. “Cancer can also sometimes be mischaracterized as diverticulitis on a CT scan, so if there are concerns on a CT scan of diverticulitis it is also important to get a colonoscopy to ensure you do not have cancer.”

It’s never too early or too late to start taking your colon health seriously, Dr. Kaminski said. A healthy diet and exercise can go a long way in reducing your risk of conditions such as diverticulitis, which does not discriminate on whom it effects. Take it from the Pope: the time is now to put your colon health first.

Want to learn more about your risk for colorectal cancer? Take a free online quiz here.

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Sadie Schwarm