Distended Colon


The human digestive system consists of a series of organs that work collectively to break down the ingested food. These organs also facilitate the absorption of essential nutrients from the food we ingest. The digestion of food starts from the time we masticate the food in the mouth. The ingested food travels from the esophagus into the stomach. The gastrointestinal tract comprises the stomach, small intestine and the large intestine. While the digestive juices or enzymes act on the ingested food to break it down, the wave-like contractions (peristalsis) propels the food from one part of the digestive tract to another. Once the food reaches the colon (large intestine), water and nutrients are absorbed from the digested food. The large intestine also performs the vital function of the eliminating the waste. One’s digestive health would certainly be affected if the colon is not functioning properly. Inflammatory bowel disease or gastrointestinal motility disorders are some of the medical conditions that may cause the colon to widen. Such an enlarged colon is medically referred to as a distended colon or a megacolon.

Enlarged Colon

Causes and Symptoms

Constipation, bloating, abdominal pain or discomfort are some of the most common symptoms of an enlarged colon. As mentioned earlier, this bowel condition is characterized by the widening of the colon. Given below are some of the conditions that may cause the colon to dilate.

Intestinal Pseudo-obstruction: Intestinal pseudo-obstruction is a condition wherein the intestines are unable to push partly digested food, gas or wastes further down the gastrointestinal tract. The incomplete evacuation of the bowel certainly explains the link between a enlarged colon and constipation. Under such circumstances, one is most likely to develop irregular bowel movements. Though poor dietary habits could make one susceptible, some people may be genetically predisposed to intestinal pseudo-obstruction. The incidence rate of this condition is higher in people who are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease or Kawasaki disease. Those who are bedridden for long stretches of time or have been taking narcotic painkillers for a long time may also be susceptible to developing pseudointestinal obstruction.

Hirschsprung’s Disease: Those who are born with a congenital condition called Hirschsprung’s disease are certainly most likely to suffer from megacolon. The characteristic sign of this developmental disorder is the absence of ganglion nerve cells. The absence of these nerve cells adversely affects the muscle movement that is required for pushing the contents of the colon further down. Thus, the contents of the colon may accumulate, and cause the colon to swell up. Blockage of the intestine may cause infection, and may even lead to the rupturing of the colon. Thus, this condition must be treated at the earliest. If an infant is unable to pass the first stool within a couple of days, then the doctors usually conduct a checkup to ascertain if the child suffers from this condition. If the child is diagnosed with this condition, doctors may suggest the appropriate treatment options to prevent complications from arising.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease: The large intestine could also get distended due to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Inflammatory bowel disease refers to a group of disorders that are characterized by the inflammation of the intestines. Ulcerative colitis is characterized by the development of ulcers in the lining of the colon. While ulcerative colitis affects the colon, Crohn’s disease could affect any part of the digestive tract. Though the exact cause of these disorders are not known, it is believed that the inflammation that occurs as a result of an immune response, may be triggered by an antigen. One may even be genetically predisposed to inflammatory bowel disease.


The treatment of an enlarged or swollen colon would vary depending on its underlying cause. People suffering from inflammatory bowel disease, may suffer from the symptoms of an inflamed colon during flare-ups. Constipation and bloating are the most common signs of a dilated colon. Since unhealthy eating habits usually cause abdominal discomfort, one must follow a diet that will prevent one’s condition from worsening. Those who experience recurring episodes of abdominal pain or discomfort, must have a thorough medical checkup done. Besides analyzing the patient’s medical history and conducting a physical examination, doctors may also conduct an X-ray or other imaging procedures to formulate a diagnosis. Drug therapy will certainly be required for treating the underlying conditions that may be causing enlargement or inflammation of the colon. Hirschsprung’s disease would need to be resolved through surgery. In patients diagnosed with intestinal pseudo-obstruction, nasogastric suction may be performed to suction out air from the dilated colon. Since constipation is one of the most common symptoms, doctors may also ask the patient to change their eating habits. Those suffering from chronic constipation may need to use laxatives or stool softeners for regularizing the bowel movements.

This was a brief overview on megacolon. A dilated colon is certainly a discomforting condition that needs to be diagnosed and treated at the earliest. If constipation, bloating and abdominal discomfort seem to persist, consult a doctor immediately. A timely treatment can help in averting toxic megacolon, which is a life-threatening condition wherein the dilation of the colon is accompanied by an infection.