There are three common types of diverticular disease: diverticulosis, diverticulitis, and diverticular bleeding. The diseases are caused when pouches, called diverticula, form inside the large intestine. They can also form in the esophagus, small intestine, or stomach, but these are rarer. The pouches are common, and the likelihood of having them increases as a person ages. While only 10 percent of people over age 40 have diverticular disease, 50 percent of people over age 60 do.
A person has diverticulosis simply by having the pouches on his intestinal wall. Diverticulosis is the type of diverticular disease that usually does not have any symptoms. If a person does experience symptoms, they are usually mild, such as cramps.
Diverticula can form in the colon when a person is constipated. Pressure from straining pushes the pockets outward on weakened areas of the intestinal wall. The pouches are usually around the size of a pea but can be much bigger.
The pouches can become infected by trapped waste matter and bacteria or become inflamed from pressure and strain, leading to another type of diverticular disease, diverticulitis. Unlike diverticulosis, the symptoms of diverticulitis are severe and noticeable. With diverticulitis, a person usually experiences a sudden pain on the left side of his abdomen. In some cases, the pain gradually builds up instead of coming on suddenly. Other symptoms of diverticulitis include a fever, change in bowel movements and nausea.
A person may experience the third type of diverticular disease, diverticular bleeding, when a blood vessel bursts next to a pouch. Bloody stool is a common result of diverticular bleeding. While the bleeding is usually not painful and generally stops on its own, it is important that a person see his doctor right away to make sure it is not caused by a more serious condition and to make sure he did not lose too much blood.
Diverticular disease in an asymptomatic person is often diagnosed during a colonoscopy. In the case of diverticulitis or diverticular bleeding, a person may be diagnosed through a CT scan or other imaging method. A blood sample may be combined with technetium, a radioactive substance that can be traced, and then injected into a person to find out from where the blood is leaking.
Though the condition is common, especially as people age, there are steps to take to prevent diverticular disease. A high-fiber diet can reduce the chance of becoming constipated and straining the colon, preventing the pouches from forming. Drinking water and getting enough exercise also reduce pressure on the colon.