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Diverticulitis occurs when diverticula (bulging sacs that usually appear in the lining of the large intestine) get infected or inflamed. Although diverticula are most common in the large intestine (colon), they can develop anywhere in your digestive tract. Pain in the lower left side of your abdomen may indicate diverticulitis. The condition is treatable. However, it can recur.
No one knows exactly what causes diverticula, but eating a diet that’s low in fiber is thought to contribute to the formation of the sacs. Eating fiber helps your stool stay soft, which makes it easier to pass. A diet that’s low in fiber can cause problems such as constipation. This requires more pressure to pass your stool. Increased pressure inside the colon is believed to lead to the development of diverticula. Diverticulitis occurs when fecal matter gets trapped in the diverticula and causes an infection.
Risk factors for diverticulitis include:
In countries such as the United States where a large part of the population eats processed foods, not getting enough fiber is a common problem. Taking fiber supplements or eating more fresh vegetables and bran products can help.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, nearly half of people over the age of 60 will develop diverticulitis, but your risk begins to increase as early as age 40. Why age makes you susceptible to diverticulitis is not known, but it could have something to do with the weakening of the bowels over time.
The most common and severe sign of diverticulitis is a pain on the lower left side of the abdomen that can appear suddenly. This pain can sometimes get worse over a few days. Other signs that you might have diverticulitis, in order of likelihood, are:
Your doctor will start your diagnosis by talking to you about the symptoms that you’re experiencing and your medical history. Your doctor will also perform a physical exam, checking for any pain in the abdomen. A blood test might also be ordered to find out if your white blood cell count is higher than normal, which would indicate an infection. Your doctor might also order a computed tomography (CT) scan (which uses computer-guided X-ray images) to find out if you have diverticula that are infected.
Depending on the severity of your case, your doctor might allow you to treat yourself at home or recommend that you stay in a hospital during treatment.
Treatment at home may include:
Your doctor may think it’s best for you to be treated in the hospital if you’ve developed any complications, such as a blockage in the bowels or an abscess (a sac filled with pus). While in the hospital, you’ll be treated with intravenous (IV) antibiotics. If you have an abscess, it will need to be drained using a needle.
If you get diverticulitis often or if your infections don’t seem to respond to antibiotics, your doctor might decide that surgery to remove the portion of your intestine where the diverticula are infected is best.
Most diverticulitis treatments work well, but once diverticula form they will be there for the rest of your life. This means that you could develop diverticulitis again at any time. Lifestyle changes can help you avoid diverticulitis in the future. Drinking plenty of water is important for making sure you don’t get constipated, as is adding more fiber to your diet.
Add more fiber to your diet slowly by eating more fresh fruits and vegetables such as:
Going to the bathroom when you feel the urge is also important for avoiding constipation. Waiting too long before going to the bathroom can cause your stool to become harder, which can increase the pressure in your bowels.
Written by: Carmella Wint and Marijane Leonard
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD
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