The colon, or the large intestine, may develop weak spots on the colon wall, particularly around the sigmoid colon (located just above the rectum). These weak spots may begin to bulge outwards and form balloon-like pouches. These pouches, called diverticula, occur gradually over a long period of time. This condition is called diverticulosis. The pouches also may cause the sigmoid colon to thicken and narrow, resulting in changes in bowel function, such as discomfort, diarrhea, and/or constipation.
This condition may begin to affect people in their 30s, and it becomes more common with age. About 10 percent of Americans over the age of 40 have diverticulosis, and about 50-60 percent of people over the age of 60 develop it. It also is often associated with a low-fiber diet.
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When the diverticula first begin to form, few, if any, symptoms may present themselves. When diverticulosis is far advanced, the colon may become very narrow and distorted, which can result in thin or pellet-shaped stools, constipation and occasional diarrhea.
If the diverticulum becomes infected, diverticulitis may occur.
As the diverticula expand, they develop a thin wall. Bacteria that aid the colon in digestion may then seep through the diverticula, causing infection. This infection around the diverticula is called diverticulitis.
Diverticulitis may be accompanied by only slight discomfort in the left lower abdomen, or result in extreme tenderness and fever.
Treatment may require taking antibiotics or resting the bowel by avoiding food and, sometimes, liquids. Hospitalization also may be required.
Your physician will ask you about your medical history, and a physical exam may reveal tenderness in your left lower abdomen. A barium enema X-ray also may be required.
Using a flexible endoscope, a gastroenterologist also may examine the inside lining of the colon.
Changes in diet may reduce the symptoms of diverticulitis and prevent complications, such as diverticulitis. Other modifications also can influence the prevention or treatment of these disorders. Some things you can do include:
In some cases, surgery may be required to remove a diseased section of the colon when diverticulitis occurs at a young age, if it occurs repeatedly, or if serious complications develop.
However, the good news is that diverticulosis and diverticulitis may be preventable by taking some of the steps listed above. Also, early diagnosis and treatment can prevent serious complications.