Coping with Diverticulitis

[3 MIN READ]

In this article:

  • Diverticular disease affects more than half of all adults in the United States age 60 and older.

  • A healthy lifestyle that includes a high-fiber diet, plenty of fluids and regular exercise is one of the best ways to prevent diverticular disease as you age.

  • A diverticulitis patient and her Providence surgeon, Dr. Childs, team up to share the story of their successful partnership.

Intense abdominal pain plagued Tammi Leader Fuller, a diverticulitis patient, for months before finding relief at Providence. Changing her eating habits didn’t stop the pain, vomiting or extreme fatigue. Neither did a month-long stay in a neighboring hospital that included IV antibiotics and a restrictive liquid diet. Desperate for answers, Tammi connected with Tracey Childs, MD, MPH, FACS. Dr. Childs is Chief of Surgery at Providence Saint John’s Health Center. She helped Tammi transfer hospitals to Providence and began overseeing her care. The two shared the story of their successful collaboration in a recent LinkedIn Live event facilitated by Schehrezade Khan, MD, a hospitalist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center.

Dr. Childs determined that diverticulitis had caused irreparable damage to Tammi's colon. She performed minimally invasive bowel resection surgery which is a procedure that removes a part of the bowel – the small intestine large intestine or rectum. In Tammi’s case, Dr. Childs removed the diseased portion of her intestine to reduce its impact on her health. The positive difference the procedure made in her life was almost immediate, says Tammi.

"Dr. Childs saved my tush," says Tammi. "Since my surgery, I am fabulous and perfect and I feel great. My message to you is 'don't be afraid.’ ”

Hear the rest of Tammi’s story.

What is diverticular disease?

Diverticular disease is common in older Americans. Its cause is unknown but may be linked to a low-fiber diet and genetics. The condition occurs when small sacs or pouches form along the lower part of the large intestine, called the sigmoid colon. At this stage, the condition is called diverticulosis. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than half of all adults over 60 in the US have diverticulosis without knowing it. Many of them have no symptoms and do not require treatment.

According to the National Institutes of Health, more than half of all adults over 60 in the US have diverticulosis without knowing it.

Diverticulitis symptoms

In some cases, the sacs and pockets in your intestine become inflamed and infected. This is called diverticulitis. The condition is a more severe threat to your health than diverticulosis. It may cause several symptoms if it worsens, including:

  • Pain
  • Fever
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Urinary symptoms
  • Rectal bleeding

Prevention, diagnosis and treatment

A healthy lifestyle that includes a high-fiber diet, plenty of fluids and regular exercise is one of the best ways to prevent diverticular disease.

Diverticulosis is usually found during tests or examinations that are being done for an unrelated health complaint. If it is not causing problems, diverticulosis does not typically require treatment, according to Dr. Childs.

Diagnosing diverticulitis typically starts with a thorough physical exam that includes a review of your health history and your symptoms. Other testing may include:

  • Blood, stool and urine tests
  • Colonoscopy
  • Digital rectal exam
  • Imaging such as abdominal X-ray, ultrasound, CT scan or MRI scan

Treatment for diverticulitis depends on the severity of your condition. Mild cases are often treated at home with dietary and lifestyle changes. Your doctor may recommend over-the-counter pain medication and prescribe oral antibiotics if you develop an infection.

When antibiotics and dietary changes don’t effectively manage your illness, surgery is often used to remove the infected portion.

If your condition is more serious or continues to cause repeated health concerns, you may require hospitalization and intravenous (IV) antibiotics and fluids. When antibiotics and dietary changes don’t effectively manage your illness, surgery is often used to remove the infected portion.

New, less invasive treatment options for diverticulitis

Surgically removing a diseased portion of the colon can be an effective treatment for diverticulitis that can't be managed with medication and dietary changes. In the past, this type of surgery required making an opening in the abdomen, known as a stoma, that allowed the attachment of a colostomy bag for waste removal. That may not be necessary for today’s treatment, says Dr. Childs.

It’s a myth that having diverticulitis automatically means getting a colostomy bag. 

“It’s a myth that having diverticulitis automatically means getting a colostomy bag. That’s absolutely not true. It’s actually very rare in this day and age that patients will end up with an emergency surgery and a colostomy,” she says.

Dr. Childs prefers minimally invasive surgery that allows her to remove the portion of the intestine containing diverticulitis with smaller incisions, faster recovery time and less pain. She then attaches the two remaining healthy sections of the intestine to each other. For many patients, the procedure can be life-changing.

"The moment Dr. Childs took out that part of my diseased colon, I no longer had diverticulitis and I no longer had any kind of colon disease," says Tammi. "That's what's such a miracle."

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Find a doctor

The gastroenterologists at Providence can help you develop a plan to improve your gut health for better health overall. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can access a full range of healthcare services. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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