Harvard Women's Health Watch

Diverticular disease prevention and treatment

This common colon condition usually produces no symptoms, but it can result in bleeding, pain, and serious infection.

Diverticular disease is a range of conditions caused by small balloon-like pouches, called diverticula (the singular is diverticulum), in the walls of the large intestine, or colon. Most people with diverticula in the colon — a condition called diverticulosis — don't have symptoms. In fact, the pouches are often discovered by chance during a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy performed for other reasons. Some people with diverticulosis experience abdominal cramping and bloating, often precipitated by eating (although the cause isn't always clear — irritable bowel syndrome has similar symptoms).

About 40% of us develop diverticulosis by age 60; women and men are equally affected. Of those with diverticulosis, 30% will develop more serious forms of the disease, including diverticulitis (infected and inflamed diverticula) and diverticular bleeding (bleeding from a blood vessel near a diverticulum). It's unclear why some people develop these problems and others do not. Most diverticulitis can be treated with medications and rest, but 25% of cases lead to complications requiring surgery, including perforation of the colon, peritonitis (infection of the abdominal cavity), bowel obstruction, abscess, and fistula (an abnormal connection between the colon and nearby tissue).

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