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Clearing Up Confusion About Colostomy

If you’ve been told that you or a loved one needs a colostomy, you may feel anxious and concerned about what the procedure entails, and how it will affect your everyday life. Will other people notice the colostomy bag under your clothes? Can you participate in your favorite hobbies, like swimming? How will it affect your diet, using the restroom, or your social life?

This is all completely normal. But learning about the procedure can help you and your loved ones feel more comfortable about what will happen before, during, and after a colostomy.

Your gastrointestinal tract (digestive tract) is a group of organs that run from your mouth to your anus. When you eat, food starts at your mouth, then moves through your esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. Normally, what’s left over exits out your anus.

What Is a Colostomy?

A colostomy is a surgical procedure that creates an opening in your abdominal (belly) wall. The end of your colon (large intestine) is brought through this opening, which is called a stoma. A stoma is made out of the lining of your intestine, and it looks like the inside of your cheek — pinkish, warm, and moist.

When you have a colostomy, your stool will move through the intestine and drain through the stoma into a bag. The bag is attached to the stoma and hangs down to collect your stool. This bag is not noticeable under normal clothing.

    Fast Facts About Colostomy

  1. A colostomy is a surgical procedure to help you pass stool from your body after a disease or injury.
  2. A colostomy doesn’t change the way your body uses food, nutrients, and water.
  3. A colostomy can be large or small and on any part of your abdomen (belly).
  4. There are no nerve endings in the stoma (the opening) created by a colostomy, so it won’t cause any pain.
  5. Depending on the reason for a colostomy, it may be temporary or permanent.

Everything in your intestines will work exactly as it did before the colostomy, except the stool will exit the body out of the stoma, not the anus. This is because the colon and rectum after the colostomy location will be disconnected or removed.

Why Might Someone Need a Colostomy?

When your digestive tract is functioning correctly, it releases stool. By doing this, it releases waste so it doesn’t build up inside your body and affect your other organs.

If there is a problem with the digestive tract, it might not be able to release stool — and that’s where a colostomy might come in.

A colostomy can be very helpful if:

  • Part your digestive tract has been removed due to a disease, such as cancer
  • Part of your digestive tract needs time to heal due to an injury or surgery
  • You are experiencing pain in your digestive tract from a condition such as inflammatory bowel disease
  • A blockage in your digestive tract is keeping stool from being released
  • You don’t have bowel control (fecal incontinence)

What Causes These Problems?

There are several reasons why you might have problems releasing stool. While colorectal cancer is one of the most well-known ones, your problems might have other causes, such as:

  • Diverticular disease (disease of the large bowel)
  • A blockage in the intestine caused by scar tissue
  • Trauma to the intestine
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis

There is a misconception that adults suffering from colorectal cancer need colostomies. However, there are other reasons why someone might need a colostomy and children and teenagers can get them too.

Are Colostomies Permanent?

A colostomy may only need to be in place temporarily if you’ve had surgery on a part of your large intestine and it needs time to recover. In this case, you’ll need to have another surgery to reattach the ends of the large intestine.

Sometimes, a colostomy may need to be permanent. If you’ve had a life-threatening disease like cancer, a colostomy can be used after the damaged part of your colon is removed.

How Can You Prepare for a Colostomy?

During a colostomy, you’ll be under general anesthesia — medication to make you fall asleep so you can’t feel pain or remember the procedure. You may be asked to fast before the surgery to avoid complications with the anesthesia.

In most cases, you will need to be in the hospital for 3 to 7 days. However, it may be longer if you have an emergency colostomy, such as for a blockage or trauma to the intestine.

You may need to follow a diet consisting of liquids and soft foods for about 2 days after the surgery. (Pro tip: Buy these foods ahead of time so your kitchen is stocked when you get home).

Be prepared to be out of work for a little while — most people can return to work 6 to 8 weeks after a colostomy.

Wear loose clothing for the first several weeks after the procedure, as the stoma will still be swollen. However, after the swelling goes down, you should be able to wear your normal clothing again. The bag might be visible under certain types of clothing, so you might need to adjust your style a little if you don’t want people to see it.

What Are the Risks of a Colostomy?

As with any medical procedure, there are risks of a colostomy, including:

  • Internal bleeding in your abdomen
  • Damage to nearby organs during surgery
  • A hernia, when abdominal tissue comes through the site of the surgical cut
  • Bowel coming through the stoma more than it should
  • Narrowing or blockage of the stoma (colostomy opening)
  • Scar tissue that blocks your intestine
  • Skin irritation

In order to lower your risk of these complications, it’s important to follow your provider’s instructions about when you can return to normal activities, what activities you might need to avoid, and how to properly care for your stoma.

Caring for Your Stoma

The skin around your stoma should look just like it did before your surgery. You can protect your skin from irritation by using a bag with the correct size opening to avoid any leakage. Your physician will help you choose a bag that’s right for you, but you should let them know if it doesn’t seem to fit as well as it did before.

Also, take good care of your skin by washing it regularly and avoiding using alcohol, oil, or other special skin care products. This will lessen the chance of any bleeding or sores.

Check the skin around your stoma each time you change your pouch or barrier. Contact your physician if you notice any:

  • Swelling that is 1 centimeter larger than normal
  • Bleeding more than normal
  • Purple, black, or white coloring on the stoma
  • Excessive leaking
  • Unpleasant smelling discharge

Living Your Day-to-Day Life With a Colostomy

Because a colostomy will change how your body functions, it will impact the way you go about your daily life. However, many of these changes are minimal — and all of them are manageable with some preparation and patience.

Colostomy and Physical Activity

Other than jobs that require very heavy lifting, such as a mover or construction worker, a colostomy won’t impact your ability to work.

Most sports — even swimming — are perfectly fine to participate in if you have a colostomy with a securely attached pouch. You’ll need to be more cautious during contact sports by wearing a guard for protection.

Colostomy and Your Social Life

You should be able to maintain all of your relationships just as before your colostomy. It’s completely up to you how much you decide to share with your friends and relatives about your health. You may only need to tell your spouse, sexual partner, or primary caretaker.

Colostomy and Sex

Physically, a colostomy doesn’t impact sexual function — but you may feel a little self-conscious. Share any concerns with your partner, and listen to their concerns, too.

Before having sex, talk to your provider about ways to protect the stoma during sexual activity.

Colostomy and Your Diet

Your provider may recommend eating a low-fiber diet for 6 to 8 weeks after a colostomy and gradually introducing fiber back into your diet. High-fiber foods can cause blockages for people with a colostomy.

Some foods may affect the gastrointestinal tract differently and cause gas, diarrhea, or constipation. For instance, foods such as cucumbers, cabbage, broccoli, onions, fish, and eggs may cause more gas and odor than others. Carbonated drinks and chewing gum may also cause gas.

Just as before your colostomy, eating healthy and drinking water can help maintain regular digestion and keep you more comfortable.

Having a colostomy will impact your life, but in many cases, it can bring great relief from other conditions. Though you will need to adjust to the practical, social, and emotional issues that come with a colostomy, many people go on to lead active and productive lives.

Support for a Colostomy

It can be difficult to have a colostomy without the support of your loved ones. If you are preparing for this procedure, don’t hesitate to ask your family and friends for the support that you need. You may also want to join a support group for people living with colostomies.

If your loved one needs a colostomy, ask them what they need and listen to their concerns. You can make the process much easier on them by supporting them emotionally, physically, and socially.

Why Choose Stormont Vail

Located in Topeka, Kansas, Stormont Vail Health is a community-driven organization. It offers close to home care and with limited travel requirements, it will be easier for you to get the care you need in a community you trust.

In 2018, Stormont Vail achieved Magnet designation for a third time. Magnet designation is one of the highest awards in nursing excellence and high-quality patient care. Only 9% of US hospitals have earned this recognition. The Joint Commission — with more than 50 years of accrediting hospitals in high quality standards — has also accredited Stormont Vail Hospital.

With several gastroenterologists and a nursing team that’s been recognized for excellence with the prestigious Magnet designation, along with a specialized digestive health team at the Cotton O’Neil Digestive Health Center, Stormont Vail has an experienced and skilled medical team to help you maintain your colon and digestive health.

Next Steps

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  • Not a Stormont Vail patient? Call (785) 270-4440 to set up your first appointment with one of our primary care providers.