The colon - the lowest part of the large intestine - is at the end of your digestive system. In many older people, small pockets or bulges develop in the wall of the colon. These are called diverticula. When these pockets become swollen, infected, or painful, the condition is called diverticulitis.
Bulges in the wall of the colon are very common in people over 60. For most of these people, such bulges or pockets cause no symptoms. But if the bulges become inflamed, and develop into diverticulitis, a person may have these symptoms:
- Abdominal pain, usually on the lower left side
- Fever and/or chills
- Nausea and vomiting
- Diarrhea and/or constipation
- Decreased appetite
Ten to 25 percent of people with bulges or pockets in the colon get diverticulitis.
Age and a low-fiber diet are the main causes of diverticula, the bulges that form in the colon. Dietary fiber makes for soft stools, and prevents constipation. Without enough fiber, a person may strain and put unusual pressure on the colon during a bowel movement. This extra pressure may cause parts of the colon to bulge or form pockets. When these bulges become infected by stools or bacteria, a person develops diverticulitis.
If your parent or grandparent had diverticulitis, you may have a higher chance of developing it as well.
A doctor may find bulges or pockets in the colon during a colonoscopy, or an X-ray done to diagnose another condition. If your doctor suspects that these pockets have become inflamed, and that you may have diverticulitis, he or she may order one or more of these tests:
- A computed tomography (CT) scan to show images of the inside of the body
- A blood test to check for an elevated white blood cell count, which indicates an infection
To treat most cases of diverticulitis, a doctor will:
- Prescribe a course of antibiotics to clear up the infection in the colon
- Put the patient on a liquid diet—and possibly bed rest—to allow the colon to heal
- Recommend a high-fiber diet for the patient to follow after recovery
A patient with a severe infection and/or severe pain may need to be hospitalized.
If a person has frequent attacks of diverticulitis, a surgeon may perform a colon resection to remove the affected part of the colon. Often, the surgeon will create a temporary hole in the abdomen, to divert bowel movements into a colostomy bag. In a second operation, the surgeon will rejoin the colon and repair the hole in the abdomen. Normal colon function usually returns in about three weeks.