I’ve got a bowel disorder more common than IBS – and it very nearly killed me: Sales rep Spencer Lynch details his battle with diverticular disease
- Spencer Lynch, 46, suffers from the little-known, but very common, condition
- Poor diet, obesity and inactivity all increase the risk, but it is not fully known why
- Many with diverticular disease will know nothing about it, as few have symptoms
With long hours spent on the road, Spencer Lynch, a salesman, struggled to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Driving between business appointments, the father of three often skipped meals and would turn to fast food when he had the chance to grab a bite to eat.
‘When I could find time to eat, it would be late, so I’d have to buy a sandwich from a petrol station or a burger from a van,’ says 46-year-old Spencer, from Chester. ‘I rarely had vegetables, salad or roughage.
‘I knew my diet was poor, but I didn’t have the luxury of eating properly.’
Spencer Lynch, 46, suffers from diverticular disease, the little-known, but very common, condition
Then, one day in 2014, Spencer suddenly felt an unbearable pain in his abdomen. ‘It was like a red hot poker — like nothing I’d ever felt before.’
It happened again three more times over the next two months, so he went to his GP surgery, where a nurse diagnosed trapped wind and told him to take paracetamol.
Initially, the pain went away, but, a few days later, it came back. Around the same time, his bowel movements became less regular.
This was accompanied a few weeks later by an extraordinary new symptom: watery ‘bubbles’ of air at the end of his penis after urinating. His GP referred him to hospital.
There, he was given a colonoscopy, where a tiny camera is passed into the bowel to look for signs of disease, as well as a camera down his urethra, the tube that takes urine from the bladder out of the body.
The diagnosis was diverticular disease — a little-known, but very common, condition, where sacs or pouches form in the intestinal wall.
The pouches can become infected and so painful that patients have to be admitted to hospital. Symptoms include bloating, constipation, diarrhoea and abdominal pain.
The disease is age-related, since the muscles in the bowel lose elasticity with age. An estimated 50 per cent of people over 60 have it, rising to 80 per cent of those over 80.
But increasing obesity levels and poor diet mean cases are on the rise among younger people, too, as the condition is closely linked to lifestyle.
Poor diet, obesity and inactivity all increase the risk, although it is not known exactly why.
Hospital admissions for diverticular disease increased significantly over the past five years, from 113,983 to 138,281, with A&E admissions increasing by 30 per cent.
‘The rise is mainly due to lifestyle and people not eating a healthy diet — in particular, a lack of dietary fibre,’ says Dale Vimalachandran, a gastrointestinal surgeon at The Grosvenor Hospital in Chester and spokesperson for Love Your Gut, a bowel disease awareness campaign.
Most people with diverticular disease will know nothing about it, as few have symptoms.
In many cases, it is picked up only during investigations for other things, or if the patient develops diverticulitis — flare- ups where the pouches become inflamed or infected, as happened in Spencer’s case.
Flare-ups affect between 10 and 25 per cent of people with diverticular disease. Triggers can include a diet containing fruit with the skins on, seeds and pips, which can get stuck in the tiny pockets in the bowel and cause inflammation or infection, so should be avoided by people with the condition.
Increasing obesity levels and poor diet mean cases are on the rise among younger people. Poor diet, obesity and inactivity all increase the risk, although it is not known exactly why (stock image)
In Spencer’s case, the pouches were filled with debris, including faeces. This had breached the bladder wall, causing a hole to form — which had then caused the bladder symptoms.
Air from the gut’s gases was passing into his bladder and out of his penis.
The problem was life-threatening and the only option an emergency operation to remove six inches of infected bowel.
‘I couldn’t believe it,’ he says. ‘It was terrifying.’
When Spencer came to after the five-hour surgery, he had a temporary stoma bag to collect faeces while the intestine healed.
After two weeks in hospital, he was discharged.
‘Even then, I was in agony,’ he recalls. ‘I had no idea how much you use your abdominal muscles to move, sit, even to stand. Just sitting up in bed was so painful.’
Three months after the surgery, he had to have another procedure to have the stoma reversed.
Hospital admissions for diverticular disease increased significantly over the past five years, from 113,983 to 138,281, with A&E admissions increasing by 30 per cent (stock image)
‘My lifestyle had caused my problems,’ says Spencer. ‘I regretted that so much and wondered if I’d ever feel normal again.’ In fact, he was signed off work for 12 weeks. Despite the fact that around half the population will be affected by diverticular disease during their lifetime, a lack of information and awareness about diverticulitis means many put their symptoms — which include pain, diarrhoea, bleeding and fever — down to other conditions.
‘People know more about IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) or even Crohn’s disease than diverticular disease,’ says Mr Vimalachandran.
For example, women might incorrectly think they are having period pains and some might even believe they have appendicitis when, in fact, it’s diverticulitis.
‘However, appendicitis generally occurs on the right side, whereas diverticulitis might start on the right, but will usually spread to the left,’ explains Mr Vimalachandran.
‘There is not enough awareness about diverticular disease, and it is not helped by the fact that people are embarrassed talking about bowel disease.
‘We see this in all aspects of bowel disease: people are reluctant to talk about their symptoms or are nervous about investigations.
Mr Lynch said his pain ‘was like a red hot poker — like nothing I’d ever felt before’
‘But awareness is important. You’re more likely to have diverticular disease than not have it.’
When it comes to treatment, ‘sometimes, symptoms settle down after resting the bowel by not eating until the symptoms subside; sometimes, antibiotics are required; and sometimes, hospital admission is needed’, says Mr Vimalachandran.
If diverticular disease is diagnosed, patients should try to avoid insoluble fibre (which makes food move along the digestive tract more quickly), as is found in foods such as wheat and bran, and opt instead for soluble fibre such as skinless fruit and vegetables, oats and beans, as well as plenty of water. Spencer, who now works in technology and is also the resident magician at Liverpool Football Club, was told his diverticular disease was most likely caused by his erratic and unhealthy meal choices.
He was told that he needed to completely overhaul his eating habits.
‘I was only too glad to change my diet, as it had caused this terrible problem,’ he says.
He began eating greens and salads, as well as more fibre.
‘If I bought pasta, it would be wholegrain. And, when I went back to work, I’d drive an extra few miles to find a wholemeal salad sandwich, rather than go for a burger,’ he adds.
Spencer says it took six months before he felt back to normal again. ‘Recovery was difficult, but I was so glad that my stoma bag was temporary,’ he says.
‘Eating was also hard at first. Often, I vomited it up again, but, in time, I got used to eating — though for seven days, I couldn’t eat at all.’
Spencer is telling his story to raise awareness of this common condition that’s so often ignored.
‘We’re a nation embarrassed to talk about our poo,’ he says. ‘More people need to be aware of gut pain and the correct consistency of our stools, and to talk about it.
‘Initially, I was told that I had trapped wind. My diverticular disease could very nearly have killed me or ruined my life for ever. Thankfully, it was caught just in time.’
How health gets better with age. This week: Migraines
Medics monitored 374 patients for 12 years and found 30 per cent had stopped suffering migraines by the end of the study
As we get older, migraines often ease in their ferocity, or disappear altogether. Medics from the Gothenburg Migraine Clinic in Sweden monitored 374 patients for 12 years and found 30 per cent had stopped suffering migraines by the end of the study and most of the rest had fewer, shorter, milder attacks.
In a 2009 article in Headache: The Journal Of Head And Face Pain, the researchers said: ‘These data suggest migraine has a favourable prognosis in most patients.’ According to The Migraine Trust, 40 per cent of sufferers will no longer have attacks by 65. Possible reasons include good treatment from an early age, stress levels falling after retirement and, in women at least, hormonal changes.
‘Fluctuations in the sex hormone oestrogen exacerbate migraines in women,’ says Dr Nick Silver, a consultant neurologist at the Walton Centre in Liverpool. ‘When levels of the hormone stabilise after the menopause, up to two-thirds of women will find their migraines ease or disappear. I am not aware of such a clear age-related effect for men.’
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