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Although many individuals swear by the health benefits of colon cleansing, no studies support claims ranging from relieving gastrointestinal conditions to cancer treatment. In fact, supplements and irrigation procedures have been known to cause cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, nausea, vomiting, electrolyte imbalance, kidney failure, aplastic anemia, liver toxicity, air emboli, rectal perforation, gangrene, water intoxication, and death from amebiasis.

Colon cleaning encompasses two basic procedures, both of which the FDA targeted over the past 10 years:

Colon Cleansers

Doctors once recommended prescription-only or over-the-counter oral sodium phosphate products for colonoscopy preparation, including Osmoprep, Visicol, and C.B. Fleet’s Phospho-Soda. While these products came onto the market in 2000, a 2005 study from Columbia University found 21 cases of acute kidney failure associated with sodium phosphate products between 2000 and 2004.

The product ends up depositing calcium-phosphate crystals in renal tubules, and if the symptoms aren’t detected quickly enough, renal failure results. The condition, called acute phosphate nephropathy, is permanent and may require chronic dialysis.

As a result, the FDA required drug manufacturer Salix to add black box warnings to its products as of 2008. For over-the-counter colon cleaners, the FDA recommended such products should only be available with a prescription, and as a result, C.B. Fleet recalled Phospho-Soda and advised healthcare providers to not recommend the product.

Colon Irrigation

The FDA only approves colon irrigation when prescribed and overseen by a doctor. Commonly, this may be a pre-treatment procedure for radiologic or endoscopic exams.

Nevertheless, practitioners in the form of spas or wellness centers tout the procedure’s benefits for treating conditions ranging from constipation to cancer. In many cases, prescription systems and nozzles cleanse the colon, but usage requires a physician’s approval and supervision, according to state laws. As past lawsuits have shown, however, this is not always the case, and a lack of physician oversight leads to serious health consequences.

For one well-known 2003 case, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott filed six lawsuits against clinics, manufacturers, and a training association involved in the promotion, sale, or unauthorized prescription usage of hydrotherapy devices without a physician’s involvement. The lawsuits and investigations from the Texas Department of Health claim the defendants advertised and administered their services without physician involvement and made fraudulent claims, such as improving “general well-being” and “re-energizing life” and treating or curing cancer, immune system problems, and other conditions, without any supporting scientific evidence. As a result of these factors, one person died and four were seriously injured from a perforated colon.

Along with the side effects mentioned above, this type of colon cleansing procedure may transmit hepatitis A, B, and C and bacteria when not administered in a safe and sterile environment.

States regulate which practices can use colonic irrigation devices. As a result, it’s considered practicing medicine without a license, and thus a violation of state law, if a doctor is not present.

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