Alexia Clark is known for her fitness tutorials and challenges on Instagram but a post she shared Monday afternoon was a clear departure from her usual. In the photo, Clark can be seen lying in a hospital bed with an oxygen tube in her nose. And, in the caption, she talked about her recent health scare.
Clark, 30, said that she "started feeling discomfort in my abdomen" around 10 p.m. on January 2, and by midnight she was "throwing up and having horrible, horrible pain." Clark originally assumed that she had "terrible food poisoning" but didn't realize the pain she was having in her side "was not normal."
"In the very early morning hours of [January] 3, the pain became unbearable," she wrote. "I have a pretty high tolerance for pain but this pain got to the point where I literally thought I was dying, and that is no exaggeration. I was sweating through my clothes. I couldn't lift my feet to put my shoes on. I ended up in the Emergency Room drenched in sweat and unable to stand up."
Clark said she was given "many tests and scans" before doctors discovered that "part of my intestines got twisted." She wrote that she was then "rushed into emergency surgery."
"According to the doctors there is no particular reason why this happened to me," Clark said. "One of the scary parts is it can happen to anyone, anytime, for no particular reason. There is no food I could have eaten, exercise I could have performed or medication I could have taken to prevent this from happening."
Clark's story is worrisome, and it's understandable that you might have questions about her condition and whether it could happen to you. Here's what you need to know.
What does it mean for your intestines to get ‘twisted’?
Clark didn't get into specifics but she could be referring to either a volvulus or a bowel obstruction, Tracey Childs, MD, a board-certified general and colorectal surgeon and chief of surgery at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Health. "A volvulus is truly spontaneous twisting of the intestine," Dr. Childs says, and is usually caused by a congenital malformation, meaning your intestines are structured in a way when you're born that make them more likely to twist at some point. A bowel obstruction can also cause twisting of the intestines, but usually happens "because of a scar-like band" in the intestines that can form after abdominal or pelvic surgery, Dr. Childs says. If Clark hasn't had surgery in the past, it's more likely that she experienced a volvulus, Dr. Childs says.
Regardless of what caused the twisting, "the effect and symptoms are the same," Dr. Childs says. When someone has twisting in the intestines, it causes a blockage that can cut off blood flow. As a result, part of the intestines may be damaged, Dr. Childs says.
An intestinal obstruction is rare, but it can happen, Dr. Childs says. Volvulus also isn't common in adults. A case report published in 2016 details how a 35-year-old man was mistakenly diagnosed with appendicitis, only for doctors to discover during surgery that he was actually struggling with volvulus. Another study published in 2017 analyzed the cases of 31 patients in China who were diagnosed with volvulus after seeking treatment. Of those patients, three died of septic shock.
What are the symptoms of a ‘twisted’ intestine?
The symptoms of both a volvulus and a bowel obstruction are similar, but have slight differences, according to the US National Library of Medicine's MedlinePlus resource. The symptoms of a volvulus can include:
- Bloody or dark red poop
- A distended abdomen
- Pain or tenderness in your stomach
- Nausea or vomiting
- Vomiting green material
Studies of volvulus in adults have also said that people had symptoms that were "unspecific" and "resembled intestinal obstruction."
Meanwhile, the symptoms of an intestinal or bowel obstruction can look like:
- Severe abdominal pain or cramping
- Loud bowel sounds
- Swelling of the abdomen
- Inability to pass gas
How is a ‘twisted’ intestine treated?
Both conditions are medical emergencies—they can cut off blood flow to your intestines and even cause part of them to become gangrenous and die, Dr. Childs says. "They also can cause terrible pain," she adds.
Both conditions often require surgery for treatment. During surgery, the intestines are untwisted and the patient's blood supply is restored. And, if a small segment of the bowel is dead due to a lack of blood flow, it is removed and the ends of the bowel are sewn together. Someone may even need a colostomy or ileostomy to empty the contents of the bowel if ends can't be sewn together.
If you experience a volvulus, a surgeon can usually untwist your intestines and remove the "floppy piece" that was responsible for the twisting so that it can't happen again in that area, Dr. Childs says. But a bowel obstruction can happen again. "It unnerves a lot of people," she says. "Unfortunately, we haven't figured out how to stop abdominal adhesions and how to prevent these obstructions."
Clark said she's now feeling better, adding, "everything is going to be OK," and that she plans to be back in action soon.
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