Diverticula is a term referring to a condition where sacs or pouches form in the wall of a canal or organ of the body. The pouch is formed by a protrusion of the inner lining through to the outer muscle. Diverticula can be found mainly in the esophagus and the large intestine, but can also be found in the stomach, small intestine and the bladder. Some diverticula are congenital, or present from birth, while others form over time. The presence of diverticula in the body is a condition known as diverticulosis.
Diverticula found in the esophagus and the intestines are usually congenital, but the cause is not exactly known. What is known is that the prevalence of the presence of diverticula is much more likely in Western nations. In the United Kingdom, for example, over 50% of the population of individuals who are over 70 have diverticulosis. By contrast, the condition is rare in rural areas such as parts of Africa. One theory is that low-fiber diets contribute to the condition, while high fiber diets, especially vegetarian diets, make for soft, bulky contents in the intestines that keep them open and less likely to form diverticula.
Most diverticula are small and produce no symptoms until med-life. As the pouch enlarges, there are uncomfortable sensations. The symptoms in the abdomen can be similar to those of irritable bowl syndrome. This could include pain in the lower abdomen, abdominal distention, irregular bowels – sometimes with blood passed with pellet-like stools. In the esophagus, the pain may be in the chest and there may be frequent expectoration of mucus. Over time, there may also be difficulty with swallowing and a periodic regurgitation of undigested food.
A doctor will first perform an examination and conduct tests and screenings to make sure there are no signs of a more serious condition prior to diagnosing diverticulosis. In mild to moderate cases of diverticulosis, the main treatment may be to modify the diet to include more fiber – including whole grains, cereals, and fruits and vegetables. There may be medication prescribed, including an antispasmodic drug to help relax the intestines or the colon muscle.
Surgery may be required in the most severe cases. If a diverticula has become severely infected or there is a damaged area that is causing problems, surgery may be performed to remove the piece or area of infection and inflammation. Recovery outlook is usually quite good – especially for those with mild to moderate cases of diverticulosis where diet changes may be all that is needed.