Colon pouches that develop in a patient’s large intestine are called diverticula and are the primary characteristics of diverticulosis and diverticulitis, the latter being more of a health threat. Diverticulosis and diverticulitis are also known more generally as diverticular disease. The pouches emerge from sections along the colon wall where muscles have weakened as a result of various causes, from overworking to a lack of fiber in a patient’s diet. Usually, hardened stool causes the colon tissue to be overworked and to lose its natural elasticity. Unfortunately, colon pouches do not go away naturally once they develop in the body, and they must be treated by a medical specialist.
The health condition diverticulosis describes patients who develop diverticula, or colon pouches. Experts say that approximately 10 percent of men and women over 40 years old in the U.S. have diverticulosis. The statistic increases to approximately 50 percent – half of all Americans—when considering all people over 60 years old. Since colon pouches are especially prevalent in Western culture, experts also hypothesize that unhealthy lifestyles, such as a diet heavy in highly processed foods paired with a lack of physical, day-to-day activity, are a primary cause for diverticulosis and diverticulitis.
Diverticulosis symptoms vary and can resemble symptoms of other colorectal conditions (i.e. irritable bowel syndrome or ulceration) and include general abdominal pains such as cramps, bloating and constipation. Most patients do not have any symptoms, or minimal symptoms. Occasionally, affected individuals feel similar to as they would with indigestion. The most common symptom of diverticulosis is rectal bleeding, especially if you are taking blood thinning medication like aspirin, Plavix or warfarin. If you experience rectal bleeding or if the symptoms last for longer than a couple of weeks, it’s important to contact a specialist and seek out a diagnosis. Severe bleeding from diverticulosis can occur, and may require surgery to cure. With all colorectal diseases, preventative care and early detection are the best way to avoid further complications.
Diverticulitis, a more dangerous diverticular disease, occurs when colon pouches become infected or inflamed. Sometimes foreign matter such as food or foreign objects can enter the pouches, allowing bacteria to breed. Only 10 to 25 percent of patients affected with diverticulosis will develop diverticulitis. It’s a much rarer condition but, in general, is easier to detect because the symptoms are more severe. Patients affected with diverticulitis will experience sharp abdominal pains, being particularly sensitive around the lower left or right-side of their abdomens. Symptoms are not gradual but, rather, occur more like an “attack” or sudden illness alongside feelings of nausea, fever and chills. Patients might vomit or experience constipation, too. Diverticulitis is treatable with antibiotics, but severe cases can require hospitalization and intravenous fluids or medications to treat. Rarely, severe diverticulitis can result in necrosis of the bowel requiring surgical resection for cure.
If you experience any combination of these diverticulitis symptoms, it is imperative that you seek out medical help before the infection spreads. If left unattended, diverticulitis can cause colorectal bleeding, perforations, tears or other forms of bowel obstruction. Contact one of our colorectal specialists for advice on how to avoid diverticulitis and what to do if you may have colon pouches.
Reviewed 12/12/2011 by David M. Nolan, M.D.
Diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, 2011
Currently a Fellow of Gastroenterology, at UCI 2011-2014