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What Is Diverticulitis?

Diverticula are small pockets in the colon that are present in up to 10% of people over age 45. About 25% of those people experience an inflammation of those pockets (otherwise known as diverticulitis).  Do nuts, seeds, corn, and popcorn really cause this potentially serious condition? The House Call Doctor explains the latest research.

By
Sanaz Majd, MD,
March 13, 2014
Episode #148

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I recently ran into a friend who shared his recent battles with recurrent diverticulitis. 

Devin was so distraught over the illness that he had started to limit his food choices significantly - to the point that his quality of life was truly diminished and he had lost quite a bit of weight as a result. 

I truly felt for him and his struggle reminded me of the new research findings on food restrictions that are advised for patients with this potentially serious condition.  Doctors may recommend that sufferers avoid certain foods, like nuts and popcorn, but does this really cause diverticulitis?  Let’s learn more about this medical condition in today’s episode.

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What Is Diverticulitis?

Before we understand diverticulitis, it’s important to understand diverticulosis.  Diverticulosis refers to small outpouchings (called “diverticula”) that are found in the inside lining of the colon – you can think of them as tiny pockets that are present in up to 10% of people over age 45. This incidence increases with age to about 80% of people over age 85. 

These little pockets can sometimes get small bits of food stuck inside of them, which can then become inflamed and even potentially infected.  When this happens, patients often feel pain and get what is referred to as “diverticulitis.”  In medicine, anything that ends in “-itis” refers to inflammation.  Therefore, diverticulitis is the inflammation of the diverticular pockets in the colon.  But not everyone with diverticulosis develops diverticulitis – only about 25% of people with these colon pockets actually get them inflamed.

Symptoms of Diverticulitis

Those with acute diverticulitis (not –osis) often feel quite ill.  There is what doctors call a “triad” of symptoms that include:

  1. Fever

  2. An elevated white blood cell count (which is found on a routine blood test called the “CBC” in more than half of those with diverticulitis; it's often a reflection of an acute infection)

  3. Abdominal pain (this can be anywhere in the stomach, but is classically found in the lower left abdomen)

Other possible symptoms include:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Abdominal distention (or bloating)

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