Diverticula are bulging sacs that can appear in the lining of your large intestine. The condition is often referred to as diverticulosis. Diverticulitis occurs when these sacs get acutely infected or inflamed. Although diverticula are most common in the large intestine (colon), they can develop anywhere in your digestive tract. Pain in the lower left side of your abdomen may indicate diverticulitis, especially when it’s accompanied by rectal bleeding. The condition is treatable, but it can recur.
No one knows exactly what causes diverticula, but eating a diet that’s low in fiber is thought to contribute to the formation of the sacs. Eating fiber helps your stool stay soft, which makes them easier to pass. A diet that’s low in fiber can cause problems such as constipation. If you have constipation, more pressure is needed to pass your stool. Doctors believe that increased pressure inside the colon can lead to the development of diverticula. Diverticulitis occurs when fecal matter lodges in the diverticula and causes an infection.
Not Eating Enough Fiber
Not eating enough fiber is a common problem in countries where a large part of the population eats processed foods, such as the United States. Taking fiber supplements or eating more fresh vegetables and bran products can help. A target goal should be to consume at least 20 to 25 grams of fiber per day.
According to Harvard Health Publications, one-third of Americans over the age of 60 will develop diverticulitis. The reason age makes you more susceptible to diverticulitis is not known, but it could have something to do with the weakening of the bowels over time.
The most common and severe sign of diverticulitis is sudden pain on the lower left side of the abdomen. This pain can sometimes get worse over a few days. Other signs that you might have diverticulitis are:
- abdominal pain and tenderness, usually on the lower left side
- gas or bloating
- loss of appetite
- rectal bleeding that’s usually bright red
Your doctor will start your diagnosis by talking to you about the symptoms that you’re experiencing and your medical history. Your doctor will also perform a physical exam, checking for any pain in the abdomen. A blood test might also be necessary to find out if your white blood cell count is higher than normal, which would indicate an infection. Your doctor might also order a CT scan to find out if you have infected diverticula. A CT scan uses computer-guided X-ray images.
Depending on the severity of your case, your doctor might suggest that you treat yourself at home or recommend that you stay in a hospital during treatment.
Treatment at Home
Treatment at home might include:
- a liquid diet to allow your diverticula to heal
- prescription antibiotics
- pain medication, such as acetaminophen or codeine products
Treatment at the Hospital
Your doctor may think it’s best for you to receive treatment in the hospital if you’ve developed any complications, such as a blockage in the bowels or an abscess, which is a sac filled with pus. While in the hospital, you’ll receive intravenous (IV) antibiotics. If you have an abscess, your doctor will drain it using a needle.
If you get diverticulitis often or if your infections don’t seem to respond to antibiotics, your doctor might decide that surgery to remove the part of your intestine where the infected diverticula are located is best.
Most diverticulitis treatments work well, but once diverticula form, they will be there for the rest of your life. This means that you could develop diverticulitis again at any time. Lifestyle changes can help you avoid diverticulitis in the future. Drinking plenty of water and adding fiber to your diet are important ways to prevent constipation.
Some people report that eating foods with nuts or seeds, such as peanuts, raspberries, or tomatoes, can cause flare-ups. You should know that there is no established medical basis for these claims. The best advice is to monitor your individual responses to food while assuring that you add an adequate amount of fiber. According to Mayo Clinic, women should eat at least 21 to 25 grams of fiber a day. Men should consumer 30 to 38 grams of fiber each day.
Add more fiber to your diet slowly by eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, such as:
- collard greens
- sweet potatoes with the skin on
- black beans
- kidney beans
- whole grains or cereals with 5 or more grams of fiber per serving
Going to the bathroom when you feel the urge is also important for avoiding constipation. Waiting too long before going to the bathroom can cause your stool to harden, which can increase the pressure in your bowels.