The colon, the part of the large intestine responsible for removing waste from the body, weakens as you age. When you pass hard stools (brought on usually by a diet low in fiber), the walls of the intestine are subjected to increased pressure, which then leads to the formation of sac-like pouches called diverticula.1
Diverticula (singular: diverticulum) protrude from the normally smooth muscular layer of the colon.
They are usually as big as a marble, and bulge out like weak spots in a tire. According to estimates, 5 percent of people have diverticula by the time they are 40 years old;2 at least 50 percent of people develop them by the age of 50. Seventy percent of people have diverticula when they are 80 years old.3
Once diverticula form in your colon, you have a condition known as diverticulosis. In the United States, diverticulosis affects half of all people over 60 years of age and nearly everyone by the age of 80.4 However, only 1 in 4 people who develop diverticula will experience symptoms.5
How Does Diverticulosis Turn Into Diverticulitis?
Diverticulosis causes very mild symptoms, but for most people, there are no symptoms at all. In fact, 7 percent of patients do not exhibit any signs, and do not know that they have this illness.6
However, when these diverticula tear or become inflamed due to the bacteria in the stools, more severe, painful symptoms occur. This condition is then called diverticulitis. Diverticulosis and diverticulitis are the two conditions under the umbrella term diverticular disease.7
Health experts do not fully understand why diverticula become infected. It may be because of the rapid spread and multiplication of the bacteria in the colon. Some believe that diverticulitis also occurs because a diverticulum becomes blocked, possibly by a piece of feces, which could lead to infection.
Diverticulitis is generally more problematic than diverticulosis, as it can cause severe symptoms, such as abdominal pain (usually on the left side), fever, nausea, vomiting, chills and a marked change in your bowel habits (either constipation or diarrhea).8
Diverticulitis can also lead to certain complications, including rectal bleeding, colon obstruction and abdominal infections.
Common Risk Factors of Diverticulitis
Men and women are equally affected by both diverticulitis and diverticulosis.9 Aside from aging, there are certain factors that may increase your risk of diverticulitis, such as being obese (people who are morbidly obese may also need more invasive methods of treatment), lack of exercise, consuming a low-fiber diet, and smoking.
Certain medications are also associated with diverticulitis, such as opiates, steroid and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).10
There Are Ways to Diagnose and Treat This Disease
Diagnosing diverticular disease can be done through physical examinations like blood tests, X-rays, digital rectal examination, colonoscopy or a flexible sigmoidoscopy.11 A CT scan may also be recommended if the patient’s symptoms are severe, as it can help determine if the inflammation has spread to other parts of the body, or if abscesses have formed.
Most physicians would recommend conventional treatment methods for this illness, although many patients experience success with non-invasive, self-treatment techniques, such as changing their diet to include more fiber and drinking plenty of fluids to soften the stool.