Diverticulitis: Symptoms and treatment for the common bowel disorder

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Pope Francis is well on the road to recovery after surgery earlier this month for diverticulitis, a bowel disorder that is actually surprisingly common. Here's a breakdown of the disorder and how it's treated.

The Pope's three-hour surgery on July 4 was for "symptomatic stenotic diverticulitis".

Dr. Benjamin Krevsky, a gastroenterologist at Temple Health, said diverticulitis begins with diverticulosis in the colon.

"There's a weakness in the wall of the bowel and part of the inside protrudes to the outside," he said.

About two out of three people have these pouches by their 60s or 70s. They don't usually cause problems.

"When one of those pouches become infected or inflamed, that's diverticulitis," he said.

Constant pain, especially on the left side of the abdomen, is generally the first sign.

"It's not something that just comes and goes once in a while. It's pretty severe. It can be associated with nausea and vomiting, and almost always with a fever," he said.

Antibiotics normally calm the inflammation. However, repeated episodes of diverticulitis can leave scar tissue that progressively thickens the colon wall and narrows the passageway. That's stenosis, the condition that sent the Pope for surgery.

"Most people can have an operation where they literally cut out the bad part, it's usually a few inches, sew everything back together again, and you're done," he said.

A week after his surgery, Pope Francis visited fellow hospital patients and stood for 10 minutes to deliver a prayer.

Dr. Krevsky said not smoking, controlling your weight, and limiting non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain killers can reduce the risk of diverticulitis. But diet is likely a big factor.

"It's thought that fiber will also help, because it tends to reduce pressure in the bowel," he said.

Many patients are told to avoid nuts and seeds that they can trigger an episode, but Dr. Krevsky said there's no scientific evidence to back that up. So his patients are free to eat them.
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