Diverticulosis is small, bulging sacs or pouches that form in the inner lining of the intestine – usually the colon.
Symptoms of diverticulosis are usually dormant. “Actually, more than half of all patients over the age of 60 have diverticulosis,” explains Carmen Meier MD, a gastroenterologist at the TriHealth Digestive Institute. "Most people who have these pockets never get any trouble with it."
The Problem: Diverticulitis
The real issue occurs when a small piece of stool becomes trapped in these pouches, causing them to become inflamed or infected, resulting in diverticulitis. That’s when the symptoms start – and they’re usually severe and very sudden. Symptoms of diverticulitis include:
- Tenderness, usually in the left lower side of the abdomen
- Bloating or gas
- Fever and chills
- Nausea and vomiting
- Not feeling hungry and not eating
Diverticulitis: What’s the Cause?
While we do not have a clear understanding of what makes someone predisposed to developing diverticulosis or diverticulitis, eating a low-fiber diet likely plays a role. Eating a diet rich in processed foods, and low in fiber, usually results in harder stools, which are difficult to pass, thus increasing the pressure in the colon or intestines, often resulting in the formation of these pouches.
“We used to think that fiber was sort of protective. Unfortunately, there has recently been a study that has sort of questioned that,” Dr. Meier points out. However, “I think most of us still recommend increased fiber intake because it’s good for a lot of other things, as well.”
Doctors are unsure as to whether genetics play a role in developing diverticulitis; however, they do know that age does. Diverticulitis is especially common in those over age 60, and is equally common in women and men.
Diagnosing and Treating Diverticulitis
If you notice symptoms of diverticulitis, depending on severity, you should either go to the emergency department or schedule an appointment with your doctor right away. From there, your doctor will administer a blood test to see if you have an infection. Other tests that help diagnose diverticulitis include:
- CT scan
- Ultrasound of the abdomen
- X-rays of the abdomen
Most cases of diverticulitis can be treated at home with oral antibiotics. Your doctor will likely recommend resting in bed, taking pain medicines (check with your doctor on which ones to take), and drinking mainly fluids for a day or two to help manage pain.
When Should I go to the Emergency Department?
If you are in severe pain and cannot get in to see your doctor, Dr. Meier says it is best to be evaluated in the emergency department. In this situation, you will probably be treated with intravenous antibiotics. “Also, in these cases, we want to make sure there’s no complications … like an actual hole – a larger hole in the colon – which can form an abscess,” Dr. Meier explains.
In rare cases, surgical intervention is needed.