Better Me

Signs Your Stomach Problems and Abdominal Pain Could Be Diverticulitis

You undoubtedly get an upset stomach every once in a while. It’s a common problem stemming from a range of causes—spicy food, stress and gastrointestinal conditions, to name a few. However, if you have abdominal pain (usually on the lower left side of your abdomen), nausea, vomiting, a low fever, changes in your bowel movements or (in some cases) blood in your stool, these could be common symptoms of diverticulitis.

To learn more about  this common digestive condition, we reached out to Jason Leubner, MD, a family medicine and geriatric medicine specialist at Banner – University Medicine Family Medicine Clinic in Phoenix.

What is diverticulitis?

Here’s what happens when you develop this condition. First, small sacs, called diverticula, form at weaker spots in your digestive system, most commonly in the large intestine. This condition is called diverticulosis, or diverticular disease, and if you have it, you likely won’t notice any signs or need any treatment.

But sometimes, these sacs get inflamed or infected. When that happens, it is called diverticulitis. The inflammation or infection that comes with diverticulitis can trigger symptoms such as stomach problems and fever.

Who’s at higher risk for diverticulitis?

People over age 40 are more likely to develop diverticulitis. That’s because the small diverticula sacs tend to develop as you get older. Plus, you’re more likely to have constipation and may be less active as you get older, and those conditions increase your risk.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, these factors might also make it more likely for you to develop diverticulitis:

  • Genes that increase your risk
  • Eating a lot of red meat
  • Not getting enough fiber
  • Low levels of physical activity
  • Taking medication such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) or steroids
  • Being obese
  • Smoking

It’s also possible that other risk factors may contribute to diverticulitis, including:

  • Stool or bacteria getting trapped in the diverticula
  • Changes in your gut microbiome (the bacteria and other microbes in your digestive tract)
  • Issues with the muscles or nerves in your large intestine
  • Immune system problems

How can you lower your risk of developing diverticulitis?

You’ll be less likely to develop diverticulitis if you:

  • Limit the amount of red meat you eat
  • Eat high-fiber foods such as high-fiber cereal, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lentils and beans
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy body weight
  • Don’t smoke

About a third of people with diverticulitis will develop episodes of diverticulitis again. If you’ve had it, you might want to consider probiotics. “Small studies have shown that the probiotic lactobacillus casei (L. casei) may help reduce the risk of repeat diverticulitis,” Dr. Leubner said.

In the past, doctors commonly recommended that people who have had diverticulitis avoid nuts, seeds, corn and popcorn. That’s because it was believed that these foods could get trapped in the diverticula and lead to diverticulitis. “Researchers have studied this connection, and eating these foods is not associated with an increased risk of diverticulitis,” Dr. Leubner said.

How is diverticulitis treated?

To start, your health care provider will take your medical history and perform a physical exam. Labs and imaging studies such as a CT scan can help confirm a diagnosis. It’s essential to get an accurate diagnosis, since diverticulitis has symptoms that could be caused by other health conditions.

For less complicated cases of diverticulitis, you can recover at home under the guidance of your primary care physician with:

  • Plenty of rest
  • Over-the-counter or prescription medications for pain control—acetaminophen or antispasmodics may be better choices than NSAIDS, which could lead to complications
  • A liquid diet for a few days while you heal. Good choices are broth, pulp-free fruit juices and ice pops, tea or coffee without milk or cream, and water
  • Antibiotics, if an infection is causing the diverticulitis

Serious cases require hospitalization so you can have more aggressive pain control, antibiotics and monitoring. In severe cases, you could develop an abscess or a perforated colon that requires surgery.

“If you have a more complicated case, your doctor may recommend a colonoscopy after you heal to make sure you don’t have any underlying issues such as colon cancer,” Dr. Leubner said.

The bottom line

Diverticulitis—infection or inflammation of tiny sacs in the large intestine and colon—is a common health condition, especially in older people. Exercise and a healthy diet can reduce your risk of developing it, and treatment can help you heal if you do. To talk about any gastrointestinal symptoms with an expert, reach out to Banner Health.

Other useful articles

Gastroenterology Senior Health