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.’