Colon Eruption: Stay Strong, Eddie Van Halen

Just months after releasing his first album with David Lee Roth in almost 30 years, Eddie Van Halen required emergency surgery for a bowel infection. 

Eddie Van Halen, June 2012  [ChrisPizello/AP]

The world's greatest Dutch-American guitarist is once again unwell. From the band's official statement:

Eddie Van Halen underwent an emergency surgery for a severe bout of diverticulitis. No further surgeries are needed and a full recovery is expected within 4-6 months.

Eddie has already survived crippling avascular necrosis and an oropharyngeal cancer, which left him with a prosthetic metal hip and half of his tongue removed. (The whereabouts of the amputated tongue are contested -- some insist that Van Halen's indomitable spirit must live on within it, and that it is thriving somewhere, pulsating, giving birth to baby tongues.)

Van Halen performing "Eruption"  [Youtube]

EVH's prognosis in this case is promising, too, but when diverticulitis requires emergency surgery, it's no small thing.

We often hear about diverticulitis as a common problem that's cured with some rest and antibiotics. And that's usually the case. But it can absolutely be serious enough to result in postponement of all of your tour dates in Japan. All of them! 


diverticulosis250.jpg[U.S. Dept of Health & Human Svcs]

A diverticulum is an out-pouching, like a tiny balloon. We can get diverticula in lots of places on/in us, but when we talk about "diverticulosis" we're referring to the ones in the walls of our colon. Most people have at least a few colonic diverticula by the time they get old. They've been associated with low-fiber diets and obesity. 

Having diverticula in your bowel isn't usually a problem. Sometimes they bleed a little -- they're actually the most common reason that people notice blood in their stool -- but rarely enough to matter. Occasionally, though, they can get infected. Then diverticulosis becomes diverticulitis.

Diverticulitis can usually be treated with antibiotics, but about 25 percent of people with their first bout of diverticulitis will have a complication that requires surgery. As Van Halen's was an "emergency" surgery, it means that he had at least one such complication. Almost definitely one of the following:

  • Rupture of his bowel wall (The diverticulum has a thin wall and is susceptible to giving out.)
  • An abscess
  • A fistula
  • Obstruction of his bowel
They're all significant, but all complications from which he can and should recover. For all his lyrical emphasis on living in the moment "like there's no tomorrow," we just have to hope he's interested in complying with long-term follow-up, dietary adjustments, and a low threshold for coming back to the hospital next time he gets a stomach ache. He will be, though, because he loves his fans. I'm sure of it.

Diverticulitis, hip replacements, and tongue cancer aren't typical badboy stuff. But Eddie Van Halen isn't our typical badboy. For all he's been through, his is a story of the humanizing universality of illness. The hero we deserve. It's not all overdoses and hot tub infections, kids.

SHARK300200.jpgEVH, 2004  [TomHood/AP]
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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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