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A diverticulum is the name given to a small pouch which bulges out from any hollow structure in the body. The plural of diverticulum is diverticula (used when there is more than one pouch). The terms diverticulosis or diverticular disease usually refer to diverticula bulging out of the colon.
Diverticula are common and associated with ageing. It is thought the pressure of hard stools (poo) passing through the large intestine that has become weakened with age causes the bulges to form.
Medical words ending in ‘itis’ usually mean there is inflammation. The word diverticulitis describes the condition which occurs when diverticula become inflamed and painful. Diverticular disease (or diverticulosis disease) just means they are present.
It is very common in western countries, especially with advancing age. It affects about 50 percent of Scottish adults by age 60 and nearly all by age 80. It is less common in Africa, possibly because of differences in diet (see diet below).
The cause of diverticular disease and diverticulitis is not precisely known, but it is more common for people with a low fibre diet. Increased pressure within the bowel probably forces pouches of bowel lining through points of weakness in the muscle layers to form diverticula. Comparisons between different countries show that diverticular disease is more common in those countries with a western diet – high in animal protein and low in vegetable or cereal fibre. A low intake of fibre results in smaller volume of material passing through the colon, and in these circumstances the pressures produced inside the colon are higher. Thus, diverticular disease is thought to be one result of a low fibre diet.
Once diverticula have formed they are permanent, but that does not mean to say that they necessarily cause trouble. Most patients with diverticular disease have no symptoms at all.
There is no increased risk of cancer in diverticular disease. However since diverticular disease and bowel cancer may cause similar symptoms, your doctor may want to be entirely sure that he/she has excluded cancer by arranging an X-
Most patients with diverticular disease do not have any symptoms, and go through life unaware of the condition. Some patients experience:
For many patients simply increasing vegetables in the diet will relieve their symptoms and return their bowel activity to normal. Fibre intake can be supplemented by adding coarse bran to food (e.g. to yogurt, soups, gravy, mashed potatoes, cereals etc). The doctor may prescribe dried fibre bulking agents:
These are other sources of fibre – often of natural origin (e.g. seed husks).
A few patients who still experience colicky pain and distension need treatment with drugs called antispasmodics or peppermint oil. These reduce the spasm in the colon which is often the cause of these symptoms.
Diverticulitis requires different management. Mild cases may be managed with oral antibiotics, dietary restrictions and possibly stool softeners. More severe cases require hospitalisation with intravenous antibiotics and dietary restraints. Most acute attacks can be relieved with such methods.
There are four main complications:
Surgery is reserved for patients with recurrent episodes of diverticulitis, complications or severe attacks when there's little or no response to medication. Surgery may also be required in individuals with a single episode of severe bleeding from diverticulosis or with recurrent episodes of bleeding.
In the past, surgery was recommended as a preventative measure for people who had two episodes of diverticulitis as a precaution to prevent complications. This is no longer the case as studies have found that in most cases risks of serious complications from surgery (estimated to be around one in a 100) usually outweigh the benefits. However, there are exceptions to this, such as:
If surgery is being considered discuss both benefits and risks carefully with the doctor in charge of your care.
Surgery for diverticulitis involves removing the affected section of your large intestine. This is known as a colectomy. There are two ways this operation can be performed:
Open colectomies and laparoscopic colectomies are thought equally effective in treating diverticulitis, and have a similar risk of complications. Laparoscopic colectomies have the advantage of having a faster recovery time, and cause less post-
In some cases, the surgeon may decide your large intestine needs to heal before it can be reattached, or that too much of your large intestine has been removed to make reattachment possible. In such cases, stoma surgery provides a way of removing waste materials from your body without using all of your large intestine. Stoma surgery involves the surgeon making a small hole in your abdomen known as a stoma. There are two ways this procedure can be carried out. These are explained below.
In most cases the stoma will be temporary and can be removed once your large intestine has recovered from the surgery. This will usually take at least nine weeks. If a large section of your large intestine is affected by diverticulitis and needs to be removed, you may need a permanent ileostomy or colostomy.
In general terms, surgery is usually successful, although it does not achieve a complete cure in all cases. Following surgery, an estimated one in 12 people will have a recurrence of symptoms of diverticular disease and diverticulitis.
If you have any further questions about diverticular disease or other colorectal issues, your own GP is often the best first port of call.
If appropriate, they will be able to arrange a referral to a colorectal specialist centre such as the Glasgow Colorectal Centre.