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Diverticulitis - Health Fact Sheet

Health Fact Sheet

Diverticula (diverticulum- means a small diversion from the normal path) are small balloon-like sacs or pouches that form in the walls of the intestines, most often in the colon (large intestine). A person who has these small pouches has diverticulosis (-osis means a process or disease). When the pouches become infected and inflamed, the condition is known as diverticulitis (-itis means inflammation).

Diverticulosis is so common that nearly half of all Americans over age 60 have it. However, only about one in five of these later develop diverticulitis; of these, only a few develop serious complications.

Causes

No one knows for sure what causes the pouches to form. They may develop when increased pressure (caused primarily by constipation) is applied at weak spots in the wall of the colon. This causes the inside wall to bulge out through the weak spots in the outer wall. Diverticulitis develops when one of the sacs becomes inflamed and infected, and bacteria enter small tears in the surface of the bowel. The infection may clear up by itself or spread to other areas.

Risk Factors

Both diverticulosis and diverticulitis are more common in cultures that eat a highly refined diet. Rural Indians and Africans-compared with people of Western cultures-rarely experience these disorders because they eat a large amount of fiber (roughage).

Symptoms

people with diverticula often do not have any symptoms. But as more and more of the pouches form, the lower colon may become narrowed and distorted, resulting in constipation, stools that are thin or pellet shaped, and an occasional rush of diarrhea. Diverticulitis is sometimes associated with abdominal pain, fever, and an elevated white blood cell count.

Diagnosis

To know whether a person has diverticulitis, a doctor needs to take a medical history and perform a physical examination. He or she will probably want to perform a barium enema X-ray and/or a colonoscopy, a procedure using a lighted instrument inserted through the rectum to view the inside of the colon.

Treatment

people who have diverticulosis and no symptoms usually need no treatment, although eating a diet high in fiber and avoiding regular use of laxatives and enemas may help prevent their condition from getting worse. people with diverticulitis may be treated with bed rest, a low-fiber (residue) diet, pain relievers, antibiotics, and careful monitoring. They may need hospitalization.

Complications

The most serious complication of diverticulitis is peritonitis (periton- means related to the peritoneum, the membrane lining the abdomen), which can develop when one of the pouches breaks and spreads infection into the abdominal cavity. Surgery may be required to treat peritonitis or to treat very severe or recurrent diverticulitis.

Simple Steps to Regularity

There are several things you can do to avoid developing diverticulitis:

  • Eat foods high in fiber, such as whole-grain cereals and breads, fruits, and vegetables.
  • Eat regular meals, chewing your food slowly and thoroughly.
  • Drink plenty of liquids, including fruit and vegetable juices, milk, and water. Liquids are important to help your body function normally.
  • Exercise daily, beginning with walking, bicycling, or swimming.
  • Take care of the urge for a bowel movement promptly to avoid straining when going to the bathroom.
  • Tell your doctor about any significant changes in bowel habits.
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