Diverticula are small sac-like protrusions that can form through points of weakness in the muscular wall of the colon. Individuals with diverticula are said to have diverticulosis. While this condition may go unnoticed in some, in others, it may cause blood in the stools.
When the diverticula become irritated or infected, the condition progresses to diverticulitis. Diverticulitis can cause symptoms that include:
- Abdominal pain (especially on the left side)
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Nausea or vomiting
- Fever and chills
Causes and triggers
While the exact cause of diverticulosis is unknown, a low-fiber diet may play a role. In fact, a lack of fiber can make stools harder, putting added stress on the colon. Pressure exerted on the colon wall could contribute to the development of diverticula. This condition affects men and women equally, and the risk of developing diverticular disease increases with age.
Diverticulitis occurs when diverticula tear, resulting in inflammation or infection. The factors below may increase the risk of developing diverticulitis:
- Lack of exercise
- Diet high in animal fat and low in fiber
- Certain medications (e.g., anti-inflammatories)
The majority of those with diverticulosis do not have symptoms, and therefore do not require treatment. These individuals however, are advised to increase their fiber intake in an effort to help bulk their stools, thereby possibly preventing diverticular bleeding and the development of new diverticula. High-fiber foods include:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains
- Legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas, etc.)
Contrary to popular belief, foods such as nuts, seeds and corn have not been shown to cause or worsen diverticulosis.
The treatment for diverticulitis depends on the severity of symptoms. If symptoms are mild, they can be treated at home with a liquid diet and oral antibiotics. More severe cases may require hospitalization. The following measures may help alleviate abdominal cramping, should the need arise:
- Apply heat on the stomach
- Relax (e.g., meditate or practice deep breathing)
- Take a pain reliever (e.g., Tylenol)
When should I see a medical professional?
- If you see blood in your stools
- If you have a fever
- If you have severe or worsening abdominal pain
- If you cannot tolerate fluids