Diverticula are outpouchings or sac-like protrusions that occur along the digestive tract anywhere from esophagus to colon. We are usually not born with them, but tend to acquire them as we grow older. They are common in the Western World, especially in large intestines. By age 60, half the US population will have had at least one, if not a dozen diverticula. They are less commonly seen in vegetarians and it is thought that a high-fiber diet prevents their formation.
By themselves, diverticula are usually harmless and do not cause any symptoms. Most often, they are discovered incidentally while performing a colonoscopy, surgery, or a barium enema X-ray. If the diverticula become infected or inflamed, probably due to stool or bacteria getting stuck in the pouches, the condition is known as diverticulitis and that can be quite painful. Symptoms include severe abdominal pain, bloating, fever, changes in bowel function, and in rare cases blood in the stool.
Treatment of diverticulitis will depend on the seriousness of the condition. If symptoms are severe, you may require hospital stay with IV antibiotics. Surgery may be indicated to remove the affected segment of colon if there is recurrence of such episodes multiple times. In rare cases, there is a rupture of the diverticulitis with or without bleeding necessitating surgery to remove a part of your colon.
Apart from old age, other risk factors for diverticulitis include obesity, smoking, lack of exercise, a diet high in animal fats and low in fiber. While there is nothing one can do about growing older, other risk factors are within one’s power to control. Leading a healthy lifestyle by consuming abundance of plant-based food, exercising regularly, and drinking plenty of water are useful.
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