Diverticulosis is the condition that occurs when small sacs or pouches develop in the digestive tract. The sacs or pouches are most commonly found in the large intestine but can also occur in any part of the digestive tract such as the esophagus, small intestine or in the stomach. The pouches are usually very small, about 5 to 10 millimeters, and people with diverticulosis typically do not develop any symptoms. It may not be diagnosed until painful diverticulitis symptoms appear. Many people only discover they have diverticulosis when they undergo a routine screening test such as a colonoscopy or during other medical tests that are conducted to find another medical problem.
The large intestine, or colon, is a lengthy hose-like organ that is plays an extremely important role in the digestive system. The job of the large intestine is to absorb water from any indigestible food matter that may left over and dispose of any waste material from the body. As a person ages, pressure in the colon may cause pockets of tissue to bulge out from the colonic walls. These pockets of tissue are referred to as sacs or pouches. Bulging pouches that are frequently found near the end of the colon are known as diverticula. When diverticula become inflamed or infected, the condition is known as diverticulitis; however, many people with diverticulosis never get diverticulitis.
While most people develop no symptoms related to diverticulosis, some may experience the feeling of cramping or bloating near the lower part of the abdomen area. Although it is very rare, some people may notice blood in their stool or on their toilet paper after a bowel movement.
Roughly twenty percent of people with diverticulosis will develop diverticulitis. The symptoms of diverticulitis may appear suddenly and be more severe than those of diverticulosis. The most common symptoms of diverticulitis include:
- Severe abdominal cramping
- Tenderness in the lower part of the belly
- Regular episodes of diarrhea and constipation
- Fever and/or chills
- Bloating or gas
- Loss of appetite
While it is not completely understood why these pouches form in the intestine, some doctors speculate that they may form due to high pressure in the colon push against weak spots within the walls of the colon. Diverticulosis is not commonly found in people under the age of 40 but is found in over fifty percent of people who are 60 to 80 years of age. Almost everyone over the age of 80 have diverticulosis. It is more commonly found in developed countries such as the United States and England where low-fiber diets are more common than among the other parts of the world where high-fiber diets of fruits and vegetables are more frequently consumed.
Diverticulosis was first discovered in the early part of the 20th century as processed foods were introduced into the diets of millions of people. Many of the processed foods consisted of low-fiber, refined flour that contained no wheat bran. As more and more people relied on processed foods, the intake of fiber-rich foods decreased significantly. A low-fiber diet is widely believed to be the main cause of diverticulosis although it has not been proven.
Fiber is an essential substance that the digestive process within the body relies on to effectively allow stools to pass through the body softly and easily. It is also known to prevent constipation so the stools are passed in a timely manner and do not sit in the colon for any extended period of time. In addition, the muscles are strained when constipation occurs because the stools are harder and is known to be the main cause of increased pressure within the colon. The weak spots where the sacs or pouches may bulge out in the walls of the colon may be caused by this pressure.
Prevention and treatment of diverticulosis includes a diet that is high in fiber to avoid constipation. Several methods to incorporate more fiber in the diet include:
- Eating foods rich in fiber each and every day. This includes fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains.
- Develop an exercise routine for every day of the week. Moderate exercise 20 to 30 minutes each day can help the digestive tract remain active and healthy.
- Drink plenty of fluids. Dehydration can cause constipation so it is important to remain hydrated. Limit the amount of caffeine and alcohol in drinks when the body feels thirsty.
- Take fiber supplements if needed; however, be sure to consult a doctor before taking laxatives. Start with a small dose of the supplement and slowly increase over time.
- Pay attention to the body’s needs. If there is an urge to have a bowel movement, visit the restroom as soon as possible.
Some medications may also cause constipation. Be sure to talk with the doctor about any medications taken regularly and what steps can be taken to relieve the effect of constipation.
A high-fiber diet, regular exercise and plenty of fluids are three of the most important methods to reduce the development of new sacs or pouches. It is also important to reduce the risk of developing diverticulitis. Avoiding foods that can cause bloating or gas is also a helpful way to relieve symptoms of painful diverticular disease.
Once the sacs or pouches have formed inside the large intestine, they will be there for life and will never go away; however, there are simple ways to prevent diverticulosis from becoming a more serious condition such as diverticulitis. One of the best ways to treat and prevent diverticulitis is to pay attention to the body. It is common for some people to believe that constipation, diarrhea, bloating and gas are normal functions of the digestive system. While these symptoms do not warrant an immediate fear in most cases, they should be addressed if any of these conditions are experienced on a regular basis. If any of these symptoms begin to hinder everyday activities, a visit to the doctor may be necessary to address the issue as soon as possible to avoid further complications.