What is a Colostomy

The colon is, along with the rectum, the terminal part of the large intestine.  It extends from the cecum (the part of the large intestine that joins to the small intestine) to the rectum (a short length of large intestine directly above the anus, about 15 centimeters (5.9 inches) long).  One of the functions of the colon is to extract fluids from what remains of food after its nutrients have been absorbed in the small intestine.  The colon also serves as a temporary storage place for solid wastes and as a channel for their removal from the body.

A surgical procedure, called colostomy, is performed for a number of reasons or conditions, all of which have something to do with the colon.  For example, a colostomy is performed because of intestinal obstruction, such as a partial or a complete blockage of the large bowel.  It could also be because of abdominal infection or injury to the rectum or colon.  Still another reason why a colostomy is performed is because of colon cancer.

The term “colostomy” is derived from the words “colon” (defined above) and “ostomy” (an opening made from an internal organ to the surface of the body by means of surgery), so that it means “the surgery where an opening is made from the colon… to the outside of the abdomen.”

To explain what a colostomy is in simple terms, a surgeon creates an opening in the wall of the abdomen.  A length of healthy colon is attached to the opening so that body wastes can be discharged.  A specially constructed bag is attached to the opening into which the evacuated wastes go.

There are two kinds of colostomy:  temporary colostomy and permanent colostomy.  The former is used for about three months while the colon heals; the opening is then closed off, and wastes are directed through the colon in the usual way.  A permanent colostomy, on the other hand, may be necessary when rectal cancer has required the removal of the lowest portion of the colon.  Note, however, that a permanent colostomy may not necessarily be involved in a surgery for colon cancer.  As a matter of fact, only about fifteen percent of all colon cancer surgeries require a permanent colostomy.

A patient who does need a permanent colostomy must adjust to it.  A colostomy is, at best, an inconvenience; it rarely causes odors or other physical problems.  However, a colostomy can cause psychological difficulties.  For example, a person who has had a colostomy may shy away from activities he formerly enjoyed, such as participating in sports or having sexual relations.  It is important, therefore, that the patient’s family provide practical advice and support to help promote in him a positive attitude.