What is diverticulitis?
Posted on 11 April 2013
More than 50% of people 70 and older will have diverticulitis. Dr Cornè Kruger, a gastroenterologist at Mediclinic Durbanville talks us through this illness of the colon that can creep up on us with age…
My doctor has said I may have diverticulitis. What is it?
As we age, pressure on our colon, or bowel, (the stacked-up, tube-like large intestine that stores and eliminates waste), can push out grape-like bulges or sacs of tissue known as diverticula in the weaker parts of the colon.
Chances are you may never know you have them. Known as diverticulosis, you may have few or no symptoms. However, these diverticulum can become infected, rupture or bleed, giving you abdominal pain and tenderness, and this is diverticulitis.
What are the symptoms of diverticulitis?
Diverticulitis can cause sudden severe pain in the lower left side of the abdomen, cramping, fever, nausea, constipation, diarrhoea or bloating.
Because the diverticula don’t cause symptoms, these are usually only picked up during routine screenings for colorectal cancer and such like, and so it is usually only during severe attacks that diverticulitis is diagnosed.
Why should I deal with it?
The danger of diverticulitis is that could cause an abscess to form and a hole could also develop in the wall of bowel which would allow waste matter to leak and cause infection and possible septic shock. Bleeding, which would show up in your stool colour, can also lead to an iron deficiency.
But fear not, if there are no complications, chances are that nothing is seriously wrong (nor is it likely to develop).
How is it diagnosed?
Your doctor will want to make sure it is diverticulitis and rule out other options. They may:
• Look at your blood count to see if your white cells have increased and red cell count dropped.
• Use an x-ray to look for gas or bloating.
• Use ultrasound to look for an abscess, or a CAT scan if you have been suffering persistent pain and fever.
• Do a barium enema, which uses a fluid to show up the diverticula on x-ray.
What treatment can I expect?
Because many patients with diverticulosis have minimal or no symptoms they do not need specific treatment and can simply use the prevention measures below.
If you are suffering with mild symptoms of bloating or pain your doctor may suggest anti-spasmodic medication that helps with cramping – antibiotics are usually needed, too.
However, those who suffer persistent bowel obstruction, an abscess that doesn’t respond to antibiotics, severe bleeding or if a hole has formed in the intestine, may need surgery.
Can I do anything to prevent it?
Your biggest risk factor is age, and that you can’t help. You are more likely to get diverticulitis if you are over 40, possibly because your bowel wall loses strength and elasticity.
While you can’t cure diverticulitis you can prevent constipation and the formation of more diverticula by keeping your system moving. Achieve this by:
• Eating a high-fibre diet. Diverticulitis only came into being after the invention of steel-rolling mills that meant finer and less fibrous flours and grains, and it’s more common in industrialised countries where the diet tends to be high in refined carbohydrates and low in fibre.
• Drinking six to eight glasses of water a day.
• Making sure you get exercise.
• Watching your weight – being overweight increases your chance of developing diverticulitis.
• Giving up smoking.
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