Abnormal growths can occur anywhere in or on the body. Most of these growths are benign (non-cancerous) but sometimes these growths can be malignant (cancerous). The latter is always a concern due to the nature of cancerous tumors. Polyps in the colon are one type of abnormal growth that protrudes from the inner wall of the colon.
Read more on bowel polyps.
Why Do Polyps Grow in the Colon?
Polyps are abnormal growths from the inner wall of any cavity. It may also occur in other cavities, like the nose (nasal polyps). The exact reason why colonic polyps arise is unclear. Several risk factors have been identified such as a family history of colonic polyps, advancing age (being older than 50 years), chronic inflammation of the bowels, tobacco and alcohol use, a sedentary lifestyle, obesity and type 2 diabetes.
These risk factors increase the chance that certain genes may mutate. It specifically applies to the cells that line the inner wall of the colon. Certain genes control the way cells divide. It ensures that these cells divide in an orderly manner and only when needed. However, if these growth controlling genes become mutated then cellular growth may be abnormal.
This abnormality can give rise to benign (non-cancerous) and malignant (cancerous) growths but the growth patterns differ between these two types of tumors. Polyps are one type of growth that can occur with this type of gene mutation. Unlike cancers that grow and invade healthy tissue, polyps are protruding growths that extend from the wall of the colon into the lumen.
Are polyps cancerous?
The vast majority of colonic polyps are non-cancerous (benign). It is still considered to be a tumor but this does not mean that it is cancerous. Tumors can be non-cancerous or cancerous. While most polyps are benign (non-cancerous), some of these growths have the potential to become malignant (cancerous). It therefore needs to be monitored on a regular basis.
Read more on colon polyps cancer risk.
Can colonic polyps be serious?
Colorectal cancer is one the most common types of cancer globally. It is also one of the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Since some types of colonic polyps can become cancerous, polyps should be taken seriously. Apart from cancer, large polyps can cause an obstruction within the colon and bleeding polyps can lead to anemia. While these conditions are not life-threatening like cancer, it can still have serious conseqeunces.
How To Spot Colonic Polyps
Most polyps in the colon are asymptomatic (without symptoms). It is only identified during diagnostic investigations such as a colonscopy. Often these polyps are diagnosed, either when investigating other conditions or during routine screening especially in high risk individuals.
One of the main goals is to verify whether these polyps are malignant (cancerous). Fortunately the majoriy of colonic polyps (as many as 99%) are benign (non-cancerous). The signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer can appear largely the same as colonic polyps.
Bleeding from the Rectum
Rectal bleeding is the most common sign of polyps in the colon but colonic polyps are not the most cause of bleeding from the rectum. It is a non-specific sign meaning that rectal bleeding is seen in many different conditions.
Rectal bleeding may vary in severity. It may only be seen when wiping after a bowel movement where it may be seen as bloody streaks or reddish tinged stool. However, when the rectal bleeding is severe then it may even taint the toilet water.
Dark to Black Stool
A change in the color of the stool can also be a sign of bleeding. While red colored stool is an obvious sign of bleeding, sometimes there may be less overt indication of bleeding. Blood can degrade if it remains in the bowels for long periods. This causes the stool to appear darker than normal and even black in hue. These black tarry stools is known as melena.
Altered Bowel Habit
An alteration of bowel habit is another non-specific sign of colon polyps. It can be either extreme – diarrhea or constipation. However, the altered bowel habit may not always be as obvious. Instead the bowel frequency may increase or decrease from normal bowel habit although not being characteristic of diarrhea or constipation.
Pain in the Abdomen
Abdominal pain may also occur in colon polyps. However, it is not a common symptom especially when there a few small polyps. On the other hand large polyps, even a single large colon polyp, can cause abdominal cramping and pain. This is more likely to occur if the polyps is large enough to cause an obstruction within the colon.
Other Signs of Colon Polyps
A host of other signs and symptoms may also arise as a result of complications. This may include:
- Iron deficiency anemia occurs with prolonged rectal bleeding.
- Dehydration may occur with diarrhea if there is inadequate hydration.
- Fecal impaction can arise with constipation.
If symptoms like unintentional weight loss occurs then colorectal cancer should be suspected.
Prevention of Colonic Polyps
Colonic polyps may be preventable to some degree. Some risk factors are non-modifiable meaning that it cannot be changed. Genes and advancing age are examples of non-modifiable risk factors. Therefore patients with a genetic predisposition should be regularly screened. However, other risk factors that are modifiable may be one of the most effective ways to prevent colonic polyps.
- Tobacco and alcohol use should be stopped. If alcohol use is to be continued then the quantity of alcohol consumed should be reduced. Maintain alcohol consumption within the recommended daily intake.
- Regular exercise may be beneficial. Always consult with a medical professional before starting with an exercise program. It should be coupled with a healthy diet which is rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
- Maintaining a healthy body weight is also important as colonic polyps are more likely to occur in obese people. Weight management could also be beneficial in preventing type 2 diabetes.
- Calcium and vitamin D supplementation may help in the prevention of colon polyps, specifically a type known as colon adenomas. It may also be beneficial in preventing colorectal cancer.
- Seek treatment for inflammatory conditions of the colon like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). There is higher risk of colon polyps in both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.