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Colonic diverticular disease - What is colonic diverticular disease?

BMJ Group Medical Reference


If you have colonic diverticular disease, it means small pouches bulging outwards from your gut wall are causing symptoms, such as painful cramps in your abdomen. But often diverticular disease can be so mild that you hardly notice you have it. There's no cure for diverticular disease. But there are treatments that can help with your symptoms.

We've brought together the best research about diverticular disease and weighed up the evidence about how to treat it. You can use our information to talk to your doctor and decide which treatments are best for you.

Lots of people have small pouches of tissue that bulge outwards from their gut wall. Doctors call these pouches diverticula. Usually these pouches don't cause any symptoms, so many people never know they have them. But if the pouches do make you ill, your doctor may say you have diverticular disease.

Diverticula are a bit like an inner tube that pokes through weak places in a tyre.[1] You can have just one of these pouches (when it would be called a diverticulum). But most people have more than one. Some people have hundreds.[2]

diverticula_default.jpgDiverticula are usually quite small. Most measure half a centimetre to 1 centimetre (about a quarter to half an inch) across. But some can be more than 2 centimetres (an inch) across.

You can get these pouches anywhere in your gastrointestinal tract. You might get them in your throat (in your oesophagus, the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach), in your stomach or in your small intestine (the part of your gut just after your stomach, also called your small bowel).

But most happen in your sigmoid colon, which is in the lower part of your large bowel, on the left side of your abdomen. The sigmoid colon joins onto your rectum and is where stools stay before you go to the toilet.[1] But if you’re Asian you are more likely to get diverticula higher up in your colon.[2]

No one knows exactly why people get diverticula. But you may be more likely to get them if you don’t eat enough fibre.[3]Fibre is the part of fruits, vegetables, and grains that your body can’t digest.

Without enough fibre you can get constipated. Your stools become hard and difficult to pass. If you strain to pass these stools, you put pressure on the inside surface of your colon. Doctors think this can cause diverticula.[2]

Your chances of getting diverticular disease increase as you get older. Men and women are equally likely to get it.[2]

But men are more likely than women to get it before the age of 40.[2]

The names for conditions that can happen in diverticula can be confusing. Here are some that you may hear about.

  • Diverticulosis: If you’ve got diverticula but you don’t have any symptoms your doctor may say you have diverticulosis. About 7 in 10 to 8 in 10 people with diverticula have diverticulosis. Doctors may find out about the pouches during tests you’re having for another reason (for example, during a screening test for bowel cancer).[1]

  • Symptomatic diverticulosis (also called diverticular disease): If you get symptoms from diverticula your doctor may say you have symptomatic diverticulosis or diverticular disease.[1][2]

  • Diverticulitis : In about 10 in 100 to 25 in 100 people with diverticular disease, the diverticula get inflamed or infected at some time in their life. This is called diverticulitis. This usually clears up in a few days with treatment that involves taking antibiotics. But some people need an operation to remove the affected part of their colon.[4] If you have diverticulitis you may get serious complications, such as a ball of pus caused by an infection (called an abscess) or a blockage in your bowel that stops you passing stools.[4] To learn more, see What will happen to me?

Last Updated: November 17, 2010
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.
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