What is Diverticular Disease?

Diverticular disease happens when pouches called diverticula form along the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, usually in the colon or large intestine, become irritated and inflamed. What causes diverticula to develop in the body is so far unknown to medical researchers. Oftentimes, the condition can be detected with a flexible sigmoidoscopy, which is an examination of the lowest part of the colon called the sigmoid colon. The sigmoid colon is the location where diverticula or are most likely to form. Patients who are older and who have a history of colorectal disease in their families’ medical histories are, unfortunately, more at risk for developing colon pouches. Diverticulosis does not carry an increased cancer risk compared to the general population; however it does carry a small risk of infection of a diverticulum (called diverticulitis) or perforation of a pouch, which can lead to serious – life threatening infection requiring surgery to fix.

What is the difference between Diverticulosis and Diverticulitis?

There are two main types of diverticular disease, the first of which is diverticulosis. Diverticulosis causes a plethora of pouches to form along the colorectal wall, most likely as a result of a diet lacking sufficient fiber. Diverticulosis is a very common medical condition that affects more than half of all patients over the age of 70—although most of those patients do not experience any symptoms. The second type of diverticular disease, called diverticulitis, is much less common although much more threatening health-wise.

Diverticulitis happens when diverticula become infected and cause inflammation that could interfere with healthy bowel function. Diverticulitis symptoms are very similar to those of colitis, inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome and can be very uncomfortable for patients who leave the disease untreated. Diverticulitis can cause the colitis or inflammation to spread rapidly to other parts of the body and can sometimes cause damage such as perforation or tearing that are particularly dangerous.

Will I Survive from Diverticulitis?

Many patients whose doctors catch diverticulitis early and seek treatment are helped immensely by antibiotic medications and general resting. However, nearly 1 out of every 3 diverticulitis patients will experience relapses of the disease that may cause more health complications, including abscesses (collected pus in the body’s small cavities), bowel obstruction (colon blockage), perforation (tearing of the colorectal tissue), fistulas (abnormal tissue connections between the anus and the rectum) and colorectal bleeding.

Contact a doctor right away if you think you may be at risk for colon pouches, as they are a sign of colitis, colon cancer and other colorectal disease. If you experience unexplained pain in your rectal or abdominal area, especially if it comes with fever, vomiting, bloating, constipation or diarrhea, your GI doctor may be able to diagnose you.


Reviewed 12/29/2011 by David M. Nolan, M.D.
Diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, 2011
Currently a Fellow of Gastroenterology, at UCI 2011-2014