A diverticulum (plural: diverticula) is a sac or pouch that bulges from the wall of the intestines. Diverticula vary in size from a grain of rice to a berry. People with many diverticula are said to suffer from diverticulosis.
Diverticulitis occurs when one or more diverticula become infected and inflamed, a more serious problem which can lead to the formation of abscesses on the lining of the intestines.
Diverticulitis occurs when bacteria becomes trapped in the pouches, causing infection. Infection can also develop in some of the weaker areas of the colon where excessive pressure can cause tears in the diverticula.
Diverticulitis can cause localized infection which often presents as an abscess. Systemic (widespread) inflammation however, may in fact be more serious and can even cause peritonitis (inflammation of the membrane that lines the inside of the abdomen and the internal organs).
Age is a risk factor since the colon walls weaken with age. A low-fiber, high-fat diet also increases one's risk of developing diverticulosis. This condition affects between 20% and 50% of North American adults over the age of 50 years.
Whereas diverticulosis can go unnoticed for years, diverticulitis is very painful. Diverticula develop primarily in the lower left part of the colon. When suffering from diverticulitis, pain in this area is particularly severe. Fever may also be present.
Other related symptoms include:
A barium enema x-ray is used to detect the presence of diverticula. This diagnostic test involves filling the patient's colon with a radiopaque contrast material that is inserted through the rectum. Barium enemas are also used to detect tumours, among other things. A colonoscopy can also be used to detect the presence of diverticula. A colonoscopy involves the insertion of a camera-tipped tube into the rectum. This allows the physician to visualize the inside of the intestines. Since diverticula are often associated with colon and rectal cancers, a cancer screening test is often conducted at the same time.
Treatment typically consists of a liquid diet and antibiotics. Symptoms normally disappear within three to eight days. Serious cases may require hospitalization and intravenous feeding. About 20% of those with diverticulitis require surgery which involves removing the affected part of the intestines.
Eating a high-fiber, low-fat diet, avoiding constipation by exercising regularly and adopting healthy eating habits will help prevent diverticula from forming. This will also help regulate your digestive system, thereby reducing intestinal pressure.
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