Colon and Rectal Surgery Patient Care

Embracing Life With an Ostomy Bag

Digestive health can be an awkward or even embarrassing subject to address, but in reality, our digestive health impacts every area of our lives. When injury or a health condition presents the need or option for ostomy surgery, the decision to go through with this potentially life-changing procedure can be a difficult one. Some people fear an ostomy bag may put limitations on their daily lives, but opting to undergo ostomy surgery and live with an ostomy bag can actually open up new opportunities and increase your sense of independence.

An ostomy bag can be a temporary part of your healing process or a life-long change. Intestinal ostomy surgery involves redirecting a portion of the small or large intestine through the abdominal wall to create an opening in the abdomen. This opening, called a stoma, allows the body to expel waste without traveling through the length of the intestines and exiting through the anus.

There are a number of reasons an ostomy surgery may be necessary and several different types of procedures. The most common reasons include injury and disease in a portion of the intestine. When a patient’s intestines need time to heal after injury, a temporary stoma may be created with the intention to reconnect the intestines later. When a portion of the intestines has to be removed – such as in some severe cases of Chron’s disease or ulcerative colitis – a permanent stoma is created and the affected portion of the intestines can be removed to help relieve symptoms of these distressing digestive conditions. An ostomy bag is attached to the stoma and adhered externally to the skin. Waste is then collected in the bag, which can be emptied, cleaned and replaced as needed.

Adjusting to Your New Routine

This is certainly a different way for the body to function – but there’s no shame in it. Many patients worry about how having a waste collection bag attached to them will affect their lifestyle and self-esteem. It’s perfectly normal to acknowledge the downsides and grieve the things in your life that change after a major procedure such as an ostomy. But focusing on the benefits can improve your outlook on your new life with an ostomy bag, whether it is a temporary step in a longer term recovery or a permanent change.

As with any big life change, an adjustment period after your procedure is to be expected. It’s important to go easy on yourself during this period – not only are you adjusting to a very new way of doing things, but your body is also healing from major surgery. Your diet and stool consistency may change and your routine will look different. One of the most notable changes may be a relief – those who undergo ostomy surgery because of a condition such as Chron’s disease or ulcerative colitis find almost immediate relief from the pain and difficulties caused by their condition.

In the beginning, accidents will happen. The process of emptying, changing, cleaning and managing your stoma and ostomy bag system may seem harrowing at first. Your doctor will give you advice on how to manage your ostomy bag and care for your stoma. There are a wide variety of ostomy products on the market. Be patient with yourself and don’t give up when it feels difficult – in time, you will find what works best for you.

It is also of vital importance to keep yourself hydrated after your procedure. Because your intestines do most of the work when it comes to absorbing water, patients who bypass or remove part of their intestines are at increased risk of dehydration. Drinking more water is an important part of your new routine.  Your doctor will give you instructions on how to stay properly hydrated after ostomy surgery.

Feeling Confident

Ostomy bags may, at first, bring about some feelings of insecurity or lowered self-esteem. Some patients, especially younger patients, may feel as if their ostomy bag is noticeable to others and may feel some shame surrounding it. You may worry about what others may think or that everyone looking at you knows. These are all perfectly normal concerns, but in reality, ostomy bags can be very easily concealed and managed. In fact, you may have met or seen several people with ostomy bags and never noticed.

Ostomy pouches are designed to be slim and to block any smell from escaping, which can make them practically undetectable underneath clothes. But in times where concealing your bag under clothing is not an easy option, such as when going swimming, patients may feel that insecurity return. There are ways to conceal your bag in most every situation and articles of clothing specially designed to help conceal your bag including utilizing swimwear, underwear and others. There are also decorative sleeves and pouches designed for ostomy bags for everyday use.

You may also, over time, become comfortable enough to allow your bag to be visible underneath or outside your clothes or in situations where your abdomen is exposed. It is completely up to you – it is your body, your comfort and your choice of disclosure and expression. Whether you choose to be private or open about your procedure and ostomy bag, it is important to remind yourself that you had your procedure in the best interests of your health and wellbeing, and your life doesn’t have to be put on hold after your surgery.

Maintaining an Active Lifestyle

Many people with chronic digestive conditions find their illness not only impacts their health, but can impede on their daily life. While living with an ostomy bag may involve some pre-planning and adjustments, many patients find they uncover a new sense of personal freedom when they no longer have to worry about their symptoms and pain getting in the way of living life.

After ostomy surgery, you can still enjoy the activities you did before your surgery and may discover more hobbies that were previously thought impossible. Your stoma does not affect your ability to exercise, run, hike, bike or perform any other activity you may enjoy. You can still swim with an ostomy bag – they are specially designed to be water-resistant. Some adjustments – such as ensuring a good seal before and after swimming and taking care in protecting your stoma in situations where it may be bumped or irritated – are unavoidable, but such adjustments do not mean you have to abandon your favorite activities.

When traveling or planning all-day events, preparation is key. Make sure you bring enough of your supplies and a few extras just in case. It is a good idea to pay attention to your diet to understand how different foods affect your waste and how you feel. It is also possible to plan your meals around events to manage your waste output and give yourself more time to enjoy your day rather than worrying about accidents or finding a bathroom to care for your bag. Over time, you will learn how certain meal routines and foods affect your ostomy routine and will find what works best for you.

While the reality of undergoing intestinal ostomy surgery and living with an ostomy bag may be daunting, this procedure can open up doors to new possibilities in your life. There are challenges to every recovery, but adjusting to life with an ostomy bag comes with unique hurdles and victories. It is important to focus on your mental health as you adapt to new routines and overcome the initial worries that naturally come with major life changes.

Washington University Colon and Rectal offers in-person and virtual visits to help patients access the care they need. Our specialists provide multidisciplinary, all-around care. Washington University ostomy nurses are specially trained to help guide patients through their recovery and adjust to life with an ostomy bag. To learn more about intestinal ostomy surgery or for a consultation, make an appointment with one of our expert colon and rectal surgeons.