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What Is Diverticular Disease?

Diverticular disease is a disorder of the large intestine (colon). The colon is the last part of the digestive tract. Food passes through it just before waste leaves the body as a bowel movement (stool).

In diverticular disease, parts of the colon wall are weak. These weak places can puff out like small sacs (diverticula). Each sac is called a diverticulum. These parts can become swollen (inflamed) and even infected. Diverticulosis refers to the presence of diverticula in many places. Diverticulitis is the name for the disorder when diverticula become inflamed or infected.

Diverticular disease can develop if food moves too slowly through the colon. Pressure in the colon from this food causes weak spots and sacs.

Food moves too slowly when there is not enough fiber in the diet or if muscle spasms occur in the colon. Fiber is found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The colon is made of muscle, and during muscle spasms, the colon tightens. Food can’t move easily through it, so a high pressure spot results.

Diverticular disease is common, especially among older people.

What Are the Symptoms of Diverticular Disease?

Many people have diverticular disease but feel fine. Diverticulosis usually causes no symptoms. Diverticulitis may cause one or more of these symptoms: pain in the lower left abdomen, fever, difficulty having a bowel movement, and gas and bloating. Diverticular disease can also cause bleeding if blood vessels in the bowel wall are damaged.

How Is Diverticular Disease Diagnosed?

In people with abdominal pain, the health care provider will want blood tests and pictures of the colon. Computed tomography (CT) scan of the belly (abdomen) can show diverticulosis and diverticulitis.

The best test to diagnose diverticulosis is colonoscopy. A thin, bendable tube (endoscope, or scope) is inserted into the rectum and then the colon. The tube has a tiny camera that lets the health care provider look for problem spots and take pictures. Before this test, a laxative must be taken to empty all food from the colon. Colonoscopy is not performed when diverticulitis is suspected because of the increased risk of perforation of the colon.

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When just the lower colon is checked, the test is called sigmoidoscopy. When the whole colon is checked, it is called colonoscopy.

How Is Diverticular Disease Treated?

For diverticulosis, eating a high-fiber diet and avoiding nuts and seeds, which may become stuck in diverticula, are important.

For diverticulitis, not eating for a few days rests the colon. Only liquids are taken until the colon heals. Antibiotics will treat the infection. Hospitalization and intravenous fluids and antibiotics may be necessary for severe cases.

Pain medicine may help, but take only the type the health care provider recommends. Some types of pain medicine may worsen the condition by causing constipation.

In severe cases, surgery may be needed to remove damaged colon.

DOs and DON’Ts in Managing Diverticular Disease:
  • DO eat a high-fiber, low-salt, low-fat diet.
  • DO drink enough fluids.
  • DO proper physical activities.
  • DO keep to the proper weight. Try to lose weight if you’re overweight.
  • DO maintain proper bowel habits (try to have a bowel movement daily).
  • DO watch for blood in the stool.
  • DO watch for signs of diverticulitis, such as fever and pain, and other complications.
  • DO call your physician if you have abdominal pain.
  • DON’T strain with bowel movements.
  • DON’T use laxatives.
FOR MORE INFORMATION

Contact the following sources:

  • National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse
    Tel: (800) 891-5389
    Website: http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/

Copyright © 2016 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc.

Ferri’s Netter Patient Advisor