Diverticulitis: What Is It & What Are The Symptoms

Diverticulitis is an infection or inflammation of the intestines, most commonly in the colon.

Don’t leave this condition to chance.

When left untreated, diverticulitis can lead to some serious complications, making the need for identifying this condition when it occurs critical. After all, the sooner someone receives an accurate diagnosis, the better their odds of effective treatment will be.

What are the signs of diverticulitis?

Patients who have diverticulitis may experience a wide range of abdominal and digestive tract symptoms that include…

13. Abdominal Cramping

What does it feel like?

An early symptom of diverticulitis is the presence of abdominal cramping, often on the lower left side of the abdomen. This cramping may be intermittent, coming and going throughout the day. Patients may also notice that the cramping peaks then subsides right before and after a bowel movement.

This symptom is often overlooked.

Because abdominal cramping may cause discomfort—but sometimes no pain—many patients do not realize that they may be experiencing an early symptom of diverticulitis. Additionally, patients may associate the abdominal cramping with dietary choices, assuming that they are simply having trouble digesting foods. It’s also not uncommon for people to associate the cramping with menstrual cycles, depending on the location of the cramps.

How does it happen?

The presence of infected or inflamed diverticula creates tension on the intestinal track. This stress narrows the space through which waste can pass, causing cramping.

Additionally, the abdominal cramping may occur simultaneously with the following symptom, which results from a buildup in and around the effected diverticula…

12. Increased Bloating and Gas

What does it feel like?

The buildup of abdominal gas may lead to symptoms like bloating. Bloating may occur on a regular and frequent basis, regardless of dietary choices, hydration levels, or exercise levels. Now, bloating can increase abdominal pressure, which may be general or localized. If the gas pressure is located higher in the abdomen, it may be mistaken for a symptom of other digestive issues, such as a gall bladder attack.

Some patients only experience relief after passing gas while others may find relief with over-the-counter medications, changes in diet, or increased exercise.

How does it happen?

Infected diverticula may swell, meaning that the interior of the intestines, particularly the colon, narrows. This narrowing causes a wide range of issues, including a buildup of gas. This buildup can cause both bloating and increased flatulence.

Bloating and gas are easy enough to ignore. If diverticulitis is left untreated, however, patients may begin to experience more specific symptoms that are difficult to ignore…

11. Blood in the Stool

What does it look like?

An alarming symptom is the presence of blood in the stool. Generally speaking, bloody stool will be darker, more of a maroon color. In some cases, though, it may appear as a brighter red. The color largely depends on the location of the diverticulitis within the intestines; typically, if the inflamed diverticula is in the colon, the blood may be a brighter red color.

How does it happen?

As the affected diverticula becomes more and more inflamed, the delicate tissue of the intestines’ interior may begin to actively bleeding or even tear. When this happens, blood mixes with waste that is later excreted as fecal matter (poop).

It is important note that the presence of blood in the stool can be the result of other conditions, like hemorrhoids. Whatever the cause, however, patients who see blood in their stool should seek medical treatment.

It’s particularly important to seek medical attention if someone notices symptoms of advanced diverticulitis, such as the following…

10. Fever

What does it feel like?

When this condition advances, it may feel like someone turned up the heat. That’s because someone actually did: the body. In advanced cases of diverticulitis, the body may turn up its own temperature in an effort to fight a potential infection.

How does it happen?

If the diverticulitis is caused by an active infection—not just an inflammation due to irritation—the patient may experience several days of a low-grade fever. However, it is also possible that the patient may experience few or no symptoms, then see a high fever spike if a serious bacterial infection occurs.

Take fevers seriously.

Everyone should take fevers seriously. This fact is true even of low-grade fevers that respond well to over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. After all, fever affects the entire body and can quickly cause complications if it does not abate.

A fever that does not respond to over-the-counter medication or suddenly spikes may indicate that the infection has moved to other parts of the body. This movement can be particularly critical if the patient has suffered any intestinal tearing of the infected diverticula; bacteria may then move into the bloodstream and infect nearby organs.

Even low-grade fevers need attention.

There are other reasons why even a low-grade fever should be addressed if other symptoms of diverticulitis are also present. After all, even a low-grade fever can cause dehydration. Dehydration in turn may worsen other symptoms, such as the following…

9. Nausea and Vomiting

What does it feel like?

Infection or inflammation of the diverticula may lead to another symptom: nausea that leads to active vomiting. Specifically, as patients begin to experience the abdominal distress caused by diverticulitis, they may begin to feel nauseated. Some patients may only experience the sensation of nausea coupled by a lowering of their appetite. Other patients may move into active vomiting, even dry heaving after they empty their stomachs.

Diverticulitis or something else?

Nausea and loss of appetite are symptoms that may be confused with other medical conditions, such as viral infections of the digestive tract, food poisoning, and pregnancy. However, nausea and vomiting that persist should raise alarm.

How does it happen?

This system of the body is quite sensitive. When diverticulitis causes consistent abdominal distress, it’s therefore possible to experience queasiness and potentially vomiting.

It’s important to take this symptom seriously. After all, consistent vomiting can lead to dehydration. When severe enough, dehydration can worsen other symptoms and can even be fatal on its own. When fever is accompanied by this next symptom, it might be time to see a doctor…

8. Persistent Abdominal Pain

How does it happen?

A key symptom of diverticulitis is abdominal pain that does not go away over time. This pain occurs due to the increased sensitivity, inflammation, and potential bleeding and tearing of the intestinal system.

Where is the pain located?

This pain usually occurs on the lower left side of the abdomen. In some populations though, such as those of Asian descent, the pain may be localized to the lower right side of the abdomen.

How severe is the pain?

Pain from diverticulitis may be severe or mildly uncomfortable; in the latter case, patients may be tempted to ignore the pain. Ignoring the pain is not a good idea, though. Ignoring this problem means forgoing early treatment, which may lead to greater complications. Conversely, severe pain from diverticulitis may be great enough to temporarily disable the patient and make the tasks of daily living difficult or impossible.

Diverticulitis or something else?

Lower abdominal pain, particularly on the right side of the body, may be associated with the appendix rather than diverticulitis. Patients experiencing persistent bouts of pain in their lower abdominal region should seek emergency medical assistance to rule out appendicitis and determine if the root cause is diverticulitis.

When this condition is the cause, lower abdominal pain is often accompanied by the following closely related symptom…

7. Abdominal Tenderness

What does it feel like?

Lower abdominal pain, intermittent or persistent, may also be coupled with abdominal tenderness. Patients may notice that their abdomen is sore to the touch or may even experience extreme discomfort when wearing tight clothing around the waist, such as belts or fitted waistbands.

How does it happen?

This sign is often due to an intestinal blockage around the site of the inflamed or infected diverticula. The stress of the blockage causes internal swelling, thereby creating a tender-to-the-touch location on the abdomen.

What to expect at the doctor’s office..

Patients who seek medical attention at this point should anticipate a thorough external abdominal examination. Doctors will likely look for any visual signs of swelling and touch the abdomen to locate any tender spots.

The next symptom requires no hands-on examination to confirm; just a lot of personal frustration…

6. Constipation

What does it feel like?

Despite feeling like needing “to go,” someone just won’t be able to pass any waste. Or, if they do, it will be less often than usual, not as much as usual, and the fecal matter will often be fairly firm.

How does it happen?

Because diverticulitis impacts the intestines—often specifically the colon—patients may experience constipation as the bowels narrow around the site of the inflamed or infected diverticula. This narrowing means waste build ups and passes much more slowly than usual.

Constipation isn’t just annoying; it’s dangerous.

Constipation can occur for any number of reasons, from food choices to simple dehydration. So, when constipation is the only outwardly noticeable symptom of diverticulitis, patients may not think it a major problem and avoid medical attention. That’s a big misconception, though. Why? Because chronic constipation increases the risk of intestinal blockages, setting the patient up for serious complications if left untreated.

While some people experience constipation due to this condition, others have the opposite problem…

5. Diarrhea

What does it feel like?

While most diverticulitis patients experience constipation, some instead experience diarrhea, or an overall increase in the frequency of their bowel movements. These new bowel movements are often watery and soft.

How does it happen?

Changes in bowel movement frequency may be related to intestinal muscle spasms in and around the site of the inflammation or infection; these spasms happen as the body’s immune system attacks the infection. Diarrhea may also occur due to stools becoming looser. They loosen as the immune system diverts water to the site of the infected diverticula; this diversion is an attempt to cleanse the site of the infection.

Diarrhea can be dangerous.

Diarrhea isn’t just annoying; it can potentially lead to a dangerous state of dehydration. So, those who experience this symptom in combination with fever need to take their condition seriously.

Now, diverticulitis might not just increase the frequency of stool…

4. Increased Frequency of Urination with Pain

What does it feel like?

In some cases of diverticulitis, the patient may experience an increased need to urinate. Others may even find urinating painful or fully emptying the bladder difficult.

How does it happen?

When inflamed diverticula fill with pus, the pus can harden. The result? Small, hard, knobby masses along the intestinal walls. If these masses are near surrounding tissues and organs, they can impact the function of other bodily systems, including the bladder.

Patients with increased urination may ignore the symptom unless the urination becomes painful or the frequency alarming. Other conditions can cause increased urination, making this symptom alone challenging to use as a diagnosis for diverticulitis.

The next symptom, though, is hard to ignore…

3. Rectal Bleeding

What does it look like?

Rectal bleeding may be mild or severe, but will generally be bright red. This color indicates active bleeding. Patients should seek immediate emergency medical treatment for this symptom and should report any other abdominal or digestive symptoms, so the doctor can properly diagnose the patient.

How does it happen?

Patients with diverticulitis may notice rectal bleeding. This symptom is quite serious, as the presence of rectal bleeding may indicate a tear or rupture of the diverticula. This rupture can create issues like increased the risk for infection to spread to the bloodstream.

This symptom is easy to notice. Some people, however, might not notice any signs of infection at all…

2. Asymptomatic Patients

Most patients will experience one or more symptoms, causing them to seek medical treatment. However, there are cases where patients are asymptomatic, or show no outwardly noticeable problems.

In these cases, patients may need to be evaluated based on risk factors, which include:

  • Age – Patients over the age of 40 are at greater risk, with the risk for diverticulitis increasing as patients continue to age.
  • Weight – Patients who are obese are at a greater risk for diverticulitis.
  • Sedentary Lifestyle – Patients who do not exercise or who spend most of their waking hours leading a sedentary lifestyle are at greater risk.
  • Smoking – Smoking may increase the risk of developing diverticulitis.
  • Diet – A diet that lacks fiber but is rich in fats and protein may increase the risk of diverticulitis.

So, what’s the takeaway?…

1. Final Thoughts

Many patients experience troubling, painful symptoms of diverticulitis that lead them to seek regular or emergency medical treatment. That being said, for others, the early symptoms may be mild and easily confused with other abdominal discomforts. Some patients may even be entirely asymptomatic. So, those who are high risk should see their primary physician to assess potential cases of this condition.

Diverticulitis is treatable—when you catch it early.

Fortunately, antibiotics or surgery can successfully treat diverticulitis. Left untreated, though, it may result in serious health complications. Patients should therefore take potential symptoms of diverticulitis seriously and report their concerns to their physicians. This, in turn, may allow for early diagnosis and treatment, increasing the odds of recovery.

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