Once upon a time—say, before 1900—diverticulosis was just another of the many "rare" medical conditions that doctors had heard about but seldom had seen. Even today, diverticulosis is rare in Third World countries.
But not in the United States, land of the Big Mac. Studies indicate that more than half of all Americans over the age of 60 have diverticulosis—characterized by tiny, grapelike pouches or sacs (diverticula) along the outer wall of the colon. Almost everyone over age 80 has the condition.
These pouches show up on x-rays, but many people never have this area x-rayed and don't even know that they have the condition, says Samuel Klein, M.D.
Of those who do have diverticulosis, Dr. Klein says, only about 10 percent will ever progress to diverticulitis—a painful inflammation that can become serious. So having diverticulosis does not mean that you're destined for severe pain or a hospital stay.
Fortunately, you can take an active role in treating and preventing diverticulosis, thus avoiding the pain of diverticulitis. Here's what our experts suggest.
If you live long enough, chances are you will get diverticulosis. Even so, odds are you won't get diverticulitis—a painful inflammation that is potentially serious. Still, you should be aware of the warning signs.
Fever and severe pain in the lower left portion of the abdominal region are good indicators that diverticulosis has advanced to diverticulitis, says Marvin Schuster, M.D.
This change shouldn't be taken lightly.
"You can have rupturing or bleeding," says Albert J. Lauro, M.D. And while it doesn't happen often, people can die from diverticulitis.
So act on those warning signs and get to a doctor fast. And stay calm—the odds are still in your favor. "If it's just an infection," Dr. Lauro says, "it usually can be handled with rest, diet, and antibiotics. You'll be okay."
Samuel Klein, M.D., is a William H. Danforth professor of medicine and nutritional science and director of the Center for Human Nutrition at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
Albert J. Lauro, M.D., was formerly director of emergency medical services at Charity Hospital in New Orleans.
Craig Rubin, M.D., is a professor of internal medicine and chief of the geriatric section at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.
Marvin Schuster, M.D., is director emeritus of the Center for Digestive Diseases at the Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, and professor emeritus of medicine and psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, both in Baltimore.
Paul Williamson, M.D., is an associate clinical professor of surgery at the University of Florida in Gainesville and a colon and rectal surgeon in Orlando.