Diverticulosis of the colon is a common condition that afflicts about 50 percent of Americans by age 60 and nearly all by age 80. Only a small percentage of those with diverticulosis have symptoms, and even fewer will ever require surgery.
What is Diverticulosis/ Diverticulitis?
Diverticula are pockets that develop in the colon wall, usually in the sigmoid or left colon, but may involve the entire colon. Diverticulosis describes the presence of these pockets. Diverticulitis describes inflammation or complications of these pockets.
What are the symptoms of diverticular disease?
Uncomplicated diverticular disease is usually not associated with symptoms. Symptoms are related to complications of diverticular disease including diverticulits and bleeding. Diverticular disease is a common cause of significant bleeding from the colon. Diverticulitis - an infection of the diverticula - may cause one or more of the following symptoms: pain in the abdomen, chills, fever and change in bowel habits. More intense symptoms are associated with serious complications such as perforation (rupture), abscess or fistula formation (an abnormal connection between the colon and another organ or the skin).
What is the cause of diverticular disease?
The cause of diverticulosis and diverticulitis is not precisely known, but it is more common for people with a low fiber diet. It is thought that a low-fiber diet over the years creates increased colon pressure and results in pockets or diverticula.
How is diverticular disease treated?
Increasing the amount of dietary fiber (grains, legumes, vegetables, etc.) - and sometimes restricting certain foods reduces the pressure in the colon and may decrease the risk of complications due to diverticular disease. Diverticulitis requires different management. Mild cases may be managed with oral antibiotics, dietary restrictions and possibly stool softeners. More severe cases require hospitalization with intravenous antibiotics and dietary restraints. Most acute attacks can be relieved with such methods.
When is surgery necessary?
Surgery is reserved for patients with recurrent episodes of diverticulitis, complications or severe attacks when there's little or no response to medication. Surgery may also be required in individuals with a single episode of severe bleeding from diverticulosis or with recurrent episodes of bleeding. Surgical treatment for diverticulitis removes the diseased part of the colon, most commonly, the left or sigmoid colon. Often the colon is hooked up or "anastomosed" again to the rectum. Complete recovery can be expected. Normal bowel function usually resumes in about three weeks. In emergency surgeries, patients may require a temporary colostomy bag. Patients are encouraged to seek medical attention for abdominal symptoms early to help avoid complications.
Does an abscess always become a fistula?
No. A fistula develops in about 50 percent of all abscess cases, and there is really no way to predict if this will occur.
How is an abscess treated?
An abscess is treated by making an opening in the skin near the anus to drain the pus from the infected cavity and thereby relieve the pressure. Often, this can be done in the doctor's office using a local anesthetic. A large or deep abscess may require hospitalization and the assistance of an anesthesiologist. Hospitalization may also be necessary for patients prone to more serious infections, such as diabetics or people with decreased immunity. Antibiotics are a poor alternative to draining the pus, because antibiotics do not penetrate the fluid within an abscess.
What about treatment for a fistula?
Surgery is necessary to cure an anal fistula. Although fistula surgery is usually relatively straightforward, the potential for complication exists, and is preferably performed by a specialist in colon and rectal surgery. It may be performed at the same time as the abscess surgery, although fistulas often develop four to six weeks after an abscess is drained, sometimes even months or years later.
Fistula surgery usually involves opening up the fistula tunnel. Often this will require cutting a small portion of the anal sphincter, the muscle that helps to control bowel movements. Joining the external and internal openings of the tunnel and converting it to a groove will then allow it to heal from the inside out. Most of the time, fistula surgery can be performed on an outpatient basis. Treatment of a deep or extensive fistula may require a short hospital stay.
How long does it take before patients feel better?
Discomfort after fistula surgery can be mild to moderate for the first week and can be controlled with pain pills. The amount of time lost from work or school is usually minimal.
Treatment of an abscess or fistula is followed by a period of time at home, when soaking the affected area in warm water (sitz bath) is recommended three or four times a day. Stool softeners or a bulk fiber laxative may also be recommended. It may be necessary to wear a gauze pad or mini-pad to prevent the drainage from soiling clothes. Bowel movements will not affect healing.
What are the chances of a recurrence of an abscess or fistula?
If properly healed, the problem will usually not return. However, it is important to follow the directions of a colon and rectal surgeon to help prevent recurrence.
© 2008 American Society of Colon & Rectal Surgeons