The colon, commonly called the large intestine, is a tube about five feet long that begins at the end of your small intestine and ends with your rectum. Your colon and rectum help your body digest food, absorb water and eliminate waste. A number of health conditions can affect the colon, and while some can be treated with dietary changes or medications, advanced cases may require surgery.
In recent years, robotic surgery for colon problems has become one of the most effective treatment methods. Here’s an overview of common colon problems and how they may be treated:
Also called colon cancer, colorectal cancer usually begins when an abnormal growth, known as a polyp, develops in the tissue lining the colon or rectum. Polyps are not always cancerous. In fact, many of them are harmless at first but slowly grow and develop into cancer over several years or more.
There may be few early signs of colon cancer symptoms. As it progresses, symptoms may include blood in the stool, rectal bleeding, or a change in bowel habits that lasts for a few days or more, such as diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool.
Pouches called diverticula can form within the intestines. They are not harmful unless they become inflamed or infected, a condition called diverticulitis.
Symptoms include pain and tenderness in the lower abdomen, nausea, vomiting and fever. If diverticulitis is severe, it can lead to serious complications, such as a perforated colon (also known as ruptured colon) or scarring that obstructs the colon. These complications require surgery.
IBD includes two disorders that involve chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. Symptoms generally include diarrhea, rectal bleeding, abdominal pain and weight loss.
- Ulcerative colitis is inflammation and sores (ulcers) along the inner lining of the colon and rectum.
- Crohn’s disease is inflammation in the lining of the intestine, including the deeper layers of tissue that can occur throughout the digestive tract.
- IBD surgery repairs or removes the damaged portions of the intestine and reconnects the healthy sections.
If you notice any of these symptoms of colon problems, call your doctor. It is important to determine what is causing your symptoms and if you need treatment. The earlier cancer is detected, the simpler and more effective treatment may be, especially with colorectal cancer.
Colectomy is the medical term for surgery to remove all or part of your colon and, if necessary, rectum. This surgery is also known as a bowel resection or colon resection.
“Depending on the type of surgery and the individual patient’s medical profile, colectomy may be performed as an open surgery with a large abdominal incision, or as a minimally invasive laparoscopic procedure that uses a few small incisions,” says Keith Beiermeister, MD, a colon and rectal surgeon with Scripps MD Anderson Cancer Center.
During a laparoscopic colectomy, the surgeon inserts special surgical tools and a thin, flexible tube mounted with a tiny camera through these incisions. The camera projects images onto a video screen, which the surgeon uses as a guide to perform the procedure.
Robotic colectomy is very similar to laparoscopic colectomy, but it uses robotic technology to allow the surgeon more precision and control. The surgical instruments are attached to robotic arms, which can move and bend in more directions than human hands. As the surgeon moves their hand, wrist and fingers, the robotic arms perform the same movements.
“The surgeon controls every move of the robot from a nearby computer, so the arms never move on their own,” says Dr. Beiermeister. “In addition, the robotic system uses a 3D camera to magnify the colon, giving the surgeon a high-definition, close-up view of the surgical area.”
Compared to open surgery, minimally invasive robotic colon surgery potentially offers benefits including smaller incisions, less pain and bleeding, a shorter hospital stay and a faster recovery time.
Not all colon problems can be prevented, but many can be detected early, including colon cancer.
Because polyps in the colon or rectum grow so slowly, the goal is to find and remove them before they become cancerous. Colonoscopy screening exams can help detect potentially cancerous growths and are recommended for everyone beginning at age 50.
If you have a family history of colorectal cancer or risk factors, such as inflammatory bowel disease, your doctor may recommend you begin screening sooner. Most people should repeat the test every 10 years. Again, if you have risk factors, your doctor may recommend screening sooner.
Medicare and most insurance companies cover these tests for people age 50 and older. Talk to your doctor about when you should be screened.