What is an Enema? Benefits and Risks

Linda SandersLinda Sanders

An enema is a procedure in which fluid is inserted into the rectum with the purpose of eliminating waste material from the colon. The word enema is often used interchangeably with colon cleansing, especially in alternative medicine. Doctors mostly use enemas as a last resort to relieve constipation or before medical examinations such as a colonoscopy. On the other hand, alternative medicine promotes regular use of enemas as a way to detoxify the body. While ancient and alternative medicine praise enemas for their health benefits, scientists and medical experts believe that regular use of enemas is unnecessary and that the procedure even carries more risks than benefits.

Enema Benefits and Risks

Use of Enemas in Alternative Medicine

Alternative medicine often emphasizes the importance of detoxifying for optimal health and well-being. Detoxification is any procedure whereby harmful toxins are removed from the body, and enema is considered in alternative medicine to be one such procedure. Unfortunately, these harmful toxins people are supposed to rid their body of remain largely unnamed. Furthermore, there is no scientific basis for claiming that all disease states are a result of the accumulation of “toxins”. There is also no proof that procedures such as colon cleansing can rid the body of these supposed toxins. For all these and many other reasons, using enemas for the purpose of cleansing a dirty colon infested with toxins has been met with criticism in the scientific community.

The Historical Use of Enemas

The use of enemas in alternative medicine dates back to Ancient Egypt. Enema was first documented in a medical text from the 16th century BC called The Papyrus Ebers. Enemas were recognized in the Western world as a cure-all medicine after the discovery that germs cause infections. The idea that waste material in the colon leads to whole-body disease states came to be somewhere in the mid-1880s according to James Whorton, a professor of history of medicine. This is when bacteriologists discovered that intestinal bacteria broke down protein residues in feces into toxic compounds according to Whorton. These compounds were believed to enter the bloodstream and lead to disease. As a result of these assumptions, the theory of self-poisoning from one’s own bowels came to be and colon cleansing was believed to be the cure.

Enema Benefits

Researchers today have a different view on the way our colons work and now agree that so-called “toxins” in our bowels are not the ones causing illness. Nevertheless, medical experts believe that enemas are very helpful in some cases. As we already explained, enemas can relieve constipation in people who don’t respond to laxatives and other treatments. Enemas are also used before a colonoscopy procedure and this helps detect any cancerous growths or polyps. Enemas are usually performed by introducing a saline solution into the large intestine through the rectum by using a device for this particular purpose. Enemas were also previously performed on women before childbirth, but doctors today believe that this may be unnecessary.

No Other Benefits of Enemas

While there are cases where enemas can help such as with impaction, constipation, or before procedures, enemas don’t really provide any other benefits beyond what we’ve already explained. Although the colon stores feces and removes waste material from the body, that does not mean that the colon is inherently dirty. Medical experts agree that the colon is acutely a self-cleaning organ whose health depends on the balance of bacteria and fungus naturally present in the colon. Colon cleansing can actually eliminate some of the good bacteria from the colon and disrupt normal digestion and fermentation of undigested food.

Benefits of Enemas

The Risk of Enemas

Enemas usually don’t cause any problems when performed correctly by a doctor. However, in rare cases, enemas can be dangerous. A systematic-review published in the American Family Physician found that some studies reported dangerous outcomes from enemas among which were electrolyte imbalances, septicemia, bowel ruptures, and even death. In one case, 36 patients were infected with a deadly ameba from using colon irrigation of which 6 died and 10 required removal of the colon. While these are all extreme cases, they do show that enemas can potentially be dangerous and since enemas were not scientifically-proven to provide any real benefits then there is no reason to put oneself in danger.

Conclusion

While alternative medicine promotes enemas as a way to detoxify the body and the colon from harmful chemicals, the scientific community has a completely different view of enemas. In the clinical setting, enemas are mostly used when absolutely necessary and researchers believe that a healthy colon is a self-cleaning system whose bacteria balance should be respected. Using enemas incorrectly can lead to adverse health outcomes and even death. All in all, it’s safe to say that the risks of enemas outweigh their benefits and that we should avoid using such procedures at home.

References:

  • http://www.worldcat.org/title/papyrus-ebers-the-greatest-egyptian-medical-document/oclc/5435947
  • http://www.aafp.org/afp/2010/0201/p337.html

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