Diverticula: Causes and Treatments
Diverticula are small bulging, pouches or sacs that develop in the lining along the walls of the gastrointestinal tract. These small sacs can develop anywhere along the digestive tract, including the stomach, small intestine and esophagus. But, they’re most commonly found in the sigmoid colon in the large intestine.
The sacs are small ruptures that develop in the weak areas along the walls of the digestive tract. These weak places develop through excessive pressure being placed on the colon walls, generally caused by constipation. Almost half of the population that’s aged 60 will have diverticula and almost everyone that is age 80 or older has some!
If there is only one pouch present it’s referred to as a diverticulum. Several or many pouches are called diverticula and the condition is called diverticulosis. You can have diverticulosis and not have any noticeable symptoms at all.
If the sacs become infected or inflamed, you could experience fever, nausea, severe abdominal pain and a drastic change in bowel movements.
When the condition reaches this stage, it’s called diverticulitis. Mild cases can often be treated with a combination of antibiotics, rest and a change in diet.
More serious cases of diverticulitis usually require surgery. And, in really severe cases, the part of the colon that is diseased must be removed. Not everyone that has diverticulosis will develop diverticulitis, there are some measures to take that can help prevent the disease and help lessen its severity.
While the exact causes of diverticula aren’t known, it is known that frequent constipation causes excess stress on the colon walls that result in weak areas. And, the essential cause is years of eating a diet that is too low in fiber!
As little as a hundred years ago, diverticular disease was a rare condition. It became more prominent in the early 1900’s with the arrival of processed foods many of which are low in fiber content. In countries where people eat diets high in fiber and vegetables, such as Asia and Africa, the disease is very rare.
Flare-ups of diverticulitis occur when undigested food gets caught inside the bulging pouches. This food combines with bacteria and forms a hard mass in the pouch. It cuts off the blood flow to the already thin stressed walls of the sac and makes them more vulnerable to bacterial infection.
Diverticular that are inflamed, cause even more pressure on the already weak areas of the walls. They can lead to peritonitis, an abscess, obstruction, perforations and even internal hemorrhages. Fistula’s sometime form and attach themselves to other organs such as the bladder.
In a diagnosis of deverticular disease, the physician will need to know all about your medical history. He will need to know about bowel habits, your diet, any medications that you take and if you’ve experienced any pain. A stool sample will usually be tested for any signs of blood and blood tests will be taken to check for any infections.
A physical exam will also be preformed, the doctor will check for tenderness, blockages and blood. If he feels that you may have diverticulosis, he may even order further tests such as x-rays. But, often since there are usually no symptoms, diverticular disease is found when performing x-rays for other medical problems.
In minor cases, you will only need to make a change in your diet. A diet high in fiber will reduce the strain and stress on the colon that result from constipation. Fiber will help to keep the stool soft so that the colon can easily eliminate the waste. If pain is present, a doctor may give you pain medication to provide relief.
If diverticulitis is present, the main goal is to fight the infection and clear up any inflammation. Antibiotics will often relieve the symptoms within just days if it’s caught early. A doctor may recommend letting the colon rest by following a liquid diet and getting lots of rest.
Severe attacks will most likely require a hospital stay. You will be given antibiotics, either through injections or an intravenous line. In the most severe cases, surgery is the only way to cure the disease. And, in most cases, part of the colon will need to be removed.
When the diverticular become filled with pus and swell, it’s called an abscess. Abscesses can eventually rupture and if many abscesses occur, the infection will spread to other parts of the body such as the abdominal cavity, through the bloodstream. This infection is called peritonitis and it can be fatal if not treated immediately.
Fistulas are another complication caused by diverticulitis. A fistula is an abnormal growth of tissues; it occurs when damaged tissues contact each other and stick together. The most common fistulas involve the colon and the bladder. It can result in a long term persistent urinary tract infection and requires surgery to correct.
Infections can leave scarring on the intestinal walls that can result in partial or total blockages of bowel movements. Both symptoms require surgery, although a total blockage will require immediate surgery. This condition can be very painful as the colon can no longer eliminate any of the fecal waste naturally.
While age does play an important role in the development of diverticulitis, preventative measures can help lessen the effects. By including lot’s of fiber in your diet you lessen the risk of constipation and thus lessen the stress exerted on the colon during bowel movements.