The colon (or large Intestine) can develop small pouches, which bulge outward through the colon’s muscular wall (see diagram below). These pouches develop in areas where blood vessels are entering the muscular wall, which is a weaker spot that allows these pouches to form.
Each pouch is called a diverticulum. Pouches are called diverticula. The condition of having diverticula is called diverticulosis.
When the pouches become infected or inflamed, the condition is called diverticulitis. This occurs in 10 to 25 in every 100 people with diverticulosis. Diverticulosis and diverticulitis are also known as diverticular disease.
What causes diverticular disease?
If your stools become small and hard instead of soft and bulky, your colon has to squeeze hard to push the stool forward. These contractions create high pressure in the muscular wall of your colon and, if this continues over the years, then these pouches develop at the weak areas in the wall of
your colon. This is one of the reasons why diverticula are more likely to develop in the left side of the colon.
There is no exact cause of diverticular disease but the following have been shown to increase your risk of developing the disease – increasing age, obesity, high BMI (body mass index), and people on low fiber diets.
Diverticular disease is common in developed or industrialised countries – particularly the United States, England, and Australia – where low fibre diets are common. The disease is rare in the countries of Asia and Africa, where people eat high-fibre vegetable diets.
Fibre is the part of fruits, vegetables, and grains that the body cannot digest. Some fibre dissolves easily in water (soluble fibre). It takes on a soft, jelly-like texture in the intestines. Some fibre passes almost unchanged through the intestines (insoluble fibre). Both kinds of fibre help make stools soft and easy to pass. Fibre also prevents constipation.
What are the symptoms?
Most people with diverticulosis do not have any discomfort or symptoms. However, possible symptoms may include mild cramps, bloating, and constipation. Other diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and stomach ulcers cause similar problems, so these symptoms do not
always mean a person has diverticulosis. You should visit your doctor if you have these symptoms.
The most common symptom of diverticulitis is abdominal pain. The most common sign is tenderness around the left side of the lower abdomen. If infection is the cause, fever, nausea (feeling sick), vomiting, chills, cramping, and constipation may occur as well. How bad your
symptoms are depends on the extent of the infection and complications.
What are the complications?
Diverticulitis can lead to bleeding, infections, perforations (small holes), tears, or blockages. These complications always need treatment to prevent them from progressing and causing serious illness.
Bleeding from diverticula is a rare complication. When diverticula bleed, blood may appear in the toilet or in your stool. Bleeding can be severe, but it may stop by itself and not need treatment. Bleeding diverticula are caused by a small blood vessel in a diverticulum that weakens and finally bursts. If you have bleeding from your rectum, you should see your doctor. If the bleeding does not stop, surgery may be needed.
• Abscess, perforation, and peritonitis
The infection causing diverticulitis often clears up after a few days of treatment with antibiotics. If the condition gets worse, an abscess may form in your colon. An abscess is an infected area with pus that may cause swelling and destroy tissue. Sometimes the infected diverticula may
develop small holes called perforations. These perforations allow pus to leak out of the colon into your abdominal area. If the abscess is small and remains in your colon, it may clear up after treatment with antibiotics. If not, your doctor may need to drain it.
A fistula is an abnormal connection of tissue between two organs or between an organ and the skin. When damaged tissues come into contact with one another during infection, they sometimes stick together. If they heal that way, a fistula forms. When diverticulitis related infections spread outside the colon, the colon tissue may stick to other nearby tissues. The
organs usually involved are the bladder, small intestine, and skin.
The most common type of fistula happens between the bladder and the colon. It affects men more than women. This type of fistula can result in a severe, long-lasting infection of the urinary tract. The problem can be corrected with surgery to remove the fistula and the affected part of your colon.
• Intestinal obstruction
The scarring caused by infection may cause part or total blockage of your colon. When this happens, your colon is unable to move bowel contents normally. When the obstruction totally blocks your colon, emergency surgery is needed. Partial blockage is not an emergency, so the surgery to correct it can be planned.
How does your doctor diagnose diverticular disease?
To diagnose diverticular disease, your doctor will ask about your medical history, perform a physical examination, and may perform one or more tests. As most people do not have symptoms, diverticulosis is often found through tests ordered for another condition.
When taking a medical history, your doctor may ask you about your bowel habits, symptoms, pain, diet, and medications. The physical examination usually involves a digital rectal examination. To perform this test, your doctor inserts a gloved, lubricated finger into your rectum to check for any
tenderness, blockages, or blood. Your doctor may check your stools for signs of bleeding and test your blood for signs of infection.
Your doctor will order further tests which may include a:
• colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy: where a tube with a camera is passed into your colon through your back passage, to view the inner lining of your whole colon. A sigmoidoscopy is a similar procedure that views mostly the left side of your colon. Medication can be given to
make the procedure comfortable and you will be given something before your procedure to make sure you completely empty your bowels.
• CT virtual colonoscopy is an x-ray-based test although, as with the colonoscopy, you will
need to completely clean your bowel with bowel preparation the day before.
What is the treatment for diverticula disease?
A high-fibre diet and occasionally, mild painkillers will help relieve symptoms in most cases. Sometimes an attack of diverticulitis is serious enough to need a hospital stay and surgery.
Diverticulosis: Increasing the amount of fibre in your diet may reduce symptoms of diverticulosis and prevent complications such as diverticulitis. Fibre keeps stools soft and lowers pressure inside the colon so that bowel content can move through easily. Twenty to 35 grams of fibre is recommended daily.
Your doctor may also recommend taking a fibre product . Foods such as nuts, popcorn hulls, and sunflower, pumpkin, caraway, and sesame seeds should be avoided. The seeds in tomatoes, courgettes, cucumbers,
strawberries, and raspberries, as well as poppy seeds, are generally considered harmless. People differ in the amounts and types of foods they can eat. Decisions about your diet should be made based on what works best for you. Keeping a diary may help identify individual items in your diet. If cramps, bloating, and constipation are problems, your doctor may prescribe a short course of pain medication. However, many medications can cause constipation.
You should take regular exercise, lose weight if you are overweight or obese, and stop smoking. Although studies do not show that these changes will definitely help all patients, changes to a person’s lifestyle will bring additional wider benefits in general health and wellbeing.
Diverticulitis: Treatment for diverticulitis focuses on clearing up the infection and inflammation, resting your colon, and preventing or minimizing complications. An attack of diverticulitis without complications
may respond to antibiotics within a few days, if treated early enough.
To help your colon rest, your doctor may recommend bed rest and a liquid diet, along with pain relief.
When is surgery necessary?
If your attacks are severe or happen often, your doctor may advise surgery. The surgeon removes the affected part of your colon and joins the remaining sections. This type of surgery is called colon resection, and aims to keep attacks from coming back and prevents complications. Your
doctor may also recommend surgery for complications of a fistula or intestinal obstruction.
Points to remember
• Diverticulosis occurs when small pouches, called diverticula, bulge outward through weak spots in your colon (large intestine).
• The pouches form when pressure inside your colon builds, usually because of constipation.
• Most people with diverticulosis never have any discomfort or symptoms.
• The most likely cause of diverticulosis is a low fibre diet because it increases the likelihood of constipation and pressure inside your colon.
• For most people with diverticulosis, eating a high-fibre diet is the only treatment needed.
• You can increase your fibre intake by eating foods such as wholegrain breads and cereals; fruit like apples and peaches; vegetables like kidney beans and lima beans.
• Diverticulitis occurs when the pouches become infected or inflamed and cause pain and tenderness around the left side of your lower abdomen.
- NHS www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/
- British Dietetic Association (BDA) www.bda.uk.com/food-health/food-facts.html
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