Diverticulitis is inflammation or infection of small pouches called diverticula that develop along the walls of the intestines.
The formation of the pouches themselves is a relatively benign condition known as diverticulosis. The more serious disease, diverticulitis, may involve anything from a small abscess in one or more of the pouches to a massive infection or perforation of the bowel.
The pouches can develop anywhere on the digestive tract, but they most commonly form at the end of the descending and sigmoid colons located on the left side of the abdomen.
They also frequently occur on the first section of the small intestine, although those rarely cause problems.
Symptoms of Diverticulosis and Diverticulitis
If you have diverticulosis, you may not even be aware of it because the diverticula are usually painless and cause few symptoms, if any. When present, symptoms may include:
Cramping on the left side of your abdomen that disappears after passing gas or moving your bowels
Bright red blood in the stool
Diverticulitis symptoms are more noticeable and include severe abdominal pain.
Diverticulitis may be acute or chronic. The acute form of diverticulitis can manifest itself with one or more severe attacks of infection and inflammation. In chronic diverticulitis, inflammation and infection may subside, but they may never clear up completely. The inflammation of diverticulitis can eventually result in a bowel obstruction, which may cause constipation, thin stools, diarrhea, abdominal swelling or bloating, and abdominal pain. If the obstruction persists, abdominal pain and tenderness will increase and you may experience nausea and vomiting.
Complications of Diverticulitis
If left untreated, diverticulitis can lead to serious complications that require surgery, including:
Abscesses may form around the infected diverticula. If these go through the intestinal wall, you may develop peritonitis, a potentially fatal infection that requires immediate treatment.
Scarring may occur, leading to a stricture or blockage of the intestine.
Fistulas may develop if an infected diverticulum reaches an adjoining organ and forms a connection between them. This most frequently occurs between the large intestine and the bladder, and it can lead to an infection of the neighboring kidneys. Fistulas can occur less commonly between the large intestine and either the skin or the vagina.
Severe bleeding may occur requiring a blood transfusion.