What Is Diverticulosis?

Diverticulosis is when pockets called diverticula form in the walls of your digestive tract.

The inner layer of your intestine pushes through weak spots in the outer lining. This pressure makes them bulge out, making little pouches. Most often it happens in your colon, the lower part of your large intestine.

Is It the Same As Diverticulitis?

No. Diverticulitis happens if one or more of the pockets gets inflamed or infected. This can cause severe pain in your belly. Diverticulosis often brings no symptoms at all.

Who’s at Risk?

Diverticulosis is common in people over age 60. It doesn’t happen often to those younger than 30. Experts think the pouches show more with age. Men might get it more than women.

Research shows the condition might be genetic. That means you’re more likely to get it if your parents or any of your brothers or sisters have it.

What Causes It?

Doctors aren’t sure. Some think muscle spasms or strain (like when you have a bowel movement) make pressure build in your colon and push against the lining.

In the past, most experts thought not eating enough fiber -- which is found in many fruits and vegetables, grains, and beans -- led to diverticulosis. But recent studies haven’t shown a clear link between the condition and eating fiber.

Your doctor will ask about your eating habits and health history before suggesting you tweak your diet.

What Are the Symptoms?

Most people who have diverticulosis don’t show any signs. Those who do might have:

A doctor likely will suggest some ways to relieve your symptoms, like taking a mild pain reliever, while he pinpoints the cause. Conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and peptic ulcers can cause similar symptoms, so he’ll want to rule them out.

How Is It Diagnosed?

Most doctors don’t notice cases of diverticulosis until they screen for other conditions. For instance, the pouches might show up in a colonoscopy, or an X-ray.

Your doctor might take these steps to know for sure:

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Gather your medical history. He’ll ask you about your diet, general health, meds you take, and how often you have bowel movements.

Do a physical exam. This may include a digital rectal exam. With a lubricated gloved finger, he’ll gently check your anus for bleeding, pain, or other signs.

Perform tests. These might include:

  • A CT scanmakes images of your digestive tract
  • A colonoscopy looks in your rectum and colon
  • A blood sample shows if you have signs like anemia or inflammation
  • A lower GI series uses X-rays to get a better look at your large intestine

What’s the Treatment?

The main goal is keep the pockets from causing problems. Your doctor might prescribe treatments that include:

High-fiber diet or fiber supplements. This will depend on how much your doctor thinks fiber (or the lack of it) might play into your condition. Fiber-rich foods reduce gas and pain in your stomach.

He might suggest a fiber product like Citrucel or Metamucil. They come in pill, powder or wafer forms. You’ll take it with lots of water.

Meds that help ease symptoms. These might include mesalazine.

Probiotics . Research is still being done on how probiotics -- live bacteria that live in your stomach and intestines -- can help fight diverticulosis symptoms. Yogurt and supplements are good sources.

It’s important to check with your doctor before taking supplements of any kind.

What About Nuts and Seeds?

In the past, doctors thought you had to avoid certain foods if you had diverticulosis. These included nuts, seeds like sunflower and sesame, and even little seeds in fruits and vegetables such as cucumbers and strawberries. But recent research shows these foods don’t harm people with diverticulosis.

Can I Prevent Diverticulosis?

This condition is much more common now than it was 100 years ago. Many doctors believe our modern diet – which features lots of refined carbs and keeps you from getting enough fiber – plays the biggest role in whether you get it.

Other possible risk factors include:

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Possible Complications

Having diverticulosis doesn’t mean you’ll have more problems, but they can happen. For example:

Sacs can get infected, and even burst. This is diverticulitis. It’s treated with rest, fluids, and antibiotics.

The infection can spread and an abscess can form. A specialist will need to drain the pus.

A perforation (a hole along the stomach wall) can occur. It’s rare, but life-threatening and requires immediate surgery.

You can get a diverticular hemorrhage. This is rare. It happens when your arteries wear through the intestinal wall. It causes massive bleeding and requires hospitalization and blood transfusions.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on January 16, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Diverticulosis and Diverticulitis.”

American College of Gastroenterology: “Diverticulosis and Diverticulitis.”

American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy: “Understanding Diverticulosis.”

Mayo Clinic: “Peptic Ulcer.”

Medline Plus: “Diverticulosis and Diverticulitis.”

Harvard Health Publications: “Preventing Diverticular Disease, from Harvard Men’s Health Watch.”

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