What Is Diverticulitis?

Diverticulitis is a medical condition defined by infected or inflamed diverticula, which are small pouches that form in the lining of the digestive system, typically in the large intestine or colon. Diverticula are common in older populations and don’t always result in health complications. Mild versions of the disease are treated with prescription medications and lifestyle changes; more severe forms may require corrective surgery. 

Among Americans, an estimated one in ten persons over age 40, and one in two over age 60, develop diverticula. Roughly one-quarter of these show the symptoms associated with diverticulitis. The disease is not contagious.

What Are the Symptoms of Diverticulitis?

Symptoms of diverticulitis include:

  • Pain or tenderness, especially in the lower left part of the abdomen
  • Bloat
  • Change in bowel habits (constipation or diarrhea) 
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever

Other possible symptoms are nausea, vomiting, gas, and low blood pressure.

What Causes Diverticulitis?

The immediate cause of diverticulitis is the development of a tear or rupture in one or more of the small pouches that line the large intestines – the diverticula. Rupturing can generate inflammation and infection in the affected area. 

The cause of the tears is less clear. A widely accepted theory implicates modern, low-fiber diets as being a factor. Diverticulitis was first noted by the medical profession early in the 20th century, when processed foods were becoming more common in American diets. It is also possible that certain infectious bacteria or other microbes may play a role. 

How Can I Prevent Diverticulitis?

As with many other medical conditions, you can reduce the possibility of developing diverticulitis by choosing a healthy lifestyle. Three important steps you can take are:

  • Exercise often: Regular physical activity is as good for your colon as it is for other parts of your body. Exercise can help regularize bowel function and reduce pressure inside the colon, which decreases the likelihood of ruptures or tears in the intestinal lining. Set a goal of 30 minutes or more of daily exercise. 
  • Eat a high-fiber diet: High-fiber food, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, soften fecal matter and cause it to pass more easily through your intestines. Other options include seeds and nuts; scientists no longer see these foods as triggering diverticulitis. 
  • Drink lots of water and other fluids: Fiber works in tandem with water and other liquids to move the bowels. Without adequate water, constipation can result.

Who Is at Risk for Diverticulitis?

Regardless of what causes diverticulitis, scientists have identified several risk factors that increase your chances of developing the disease. Among these are:

  • Being overweight: Obesity increases the incidence of diverticulitis. 
  • Smoking: Smokers have a higher risk of diverticulitis than non-smokers. 
  • Being physically inactive: Regular exercise is one of the best means of preventing diverticular disease. 
  • Consuming a high-fat, low-fiber diet: Food choices that are high in fats and low in fiber correlate with a greater risk of diverticulitis. 
  • Taking certain medications: There are several types of drugs that may help promote diverticulitis. Included are steroids, opioids, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agents, such as ibuprofen and naproxen sodium. 
  • Aging: The older you are, the more likely you are to develop diverticulitis.

How Is Diverticulitis Diagnosed?

Diagnosis begins in the doctor’s office. Your physician will want to hear about your symptoms and family medical history. He or she may also:

  • Check your abdomen for tenderness
  • Conduct a rectal exam for evidence of bleeding
  • Perform a blood test to check for an elevated white blood cell count
  • Order a diagnostic test to verify the presence of diverticula and to ascertain if they’re inflamed or infected.

The most common diagnostic tests for diverticulitis are CT scans, X-rays, barium enemas, and colonoscopies. Occasionally, ultrasounds or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests are performed as well.

How Is Diverticulitis Treated?

Most cases of diverticulitis are relatively mild. However, about 25 percent of all cases turn more serious, and may involve abscesses, intestinal blockage, the development of fistula (abnormal pathways through the lower GI), or the leakage of intestinal contents into the abdominal cavity. The latter condition, known as peritonitis, is life-threatening and should be treated as a medical emergency. 

Mild forms of diverticulitis require:

  • Bed rest
  • Antibiotics
  • A temporary liquid diet
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers. 
  • Treating more serious forms of the disease may include:
  • Hospitalization
  • Intravenous antibiotics
  • Tube insertions to relieve abscesses or other signs of infection

Surgery may be called for in the most severe cases. Two common surgical procedures are:

  • Primary bowel resection: The surgeon removes the diseased portions of the intestine and then sews together the remaining healthy portions. 
  • Bowel resection with colostomy: If inflammation interferes with connecting the healthy parts of the intestines, your surgeon may opt for the attachment of a colostomy bag instead. This addition may be temporary or permanent.

Baptist Health Can Help

Diverticulitis is a common medical condition with unpleasant symptoms and potentially serious consequences. If you think you’ve developing diverticulitis, make an appointment to see your physician.

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