Can J Gastroenterol Vol 25 No 7 July 2011385
Diverticular disease: Epidemiology and management
Adam V Weizman MD, FRCPC1, Geoffrey C Nguyen MD PhD FRCPC1,2
1Division of Gastroenterology, Mount Sinai Hospital, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario; 2Johns Hopkins University School of
Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Correspondence: Dr Geoffrey C Nguyen, Division of Gastroenterology, Mount Sinai Hospital, 437-600 University Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M5G 1X5.
Telephone 416-586-4800 ext 2819, fax 416-586-5971, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Received for publication November 16, 2010. Accepted November 18, 2010
to complications that arise from colonic diverticulosis including lower
gastrointestinal hemorrhage, inflammation, pain, abscess formation,
fistula, strictures, perforation and death (1). It is an important cause
of morbidity and a significant economic burden (1,2). In 2004,
312,000 admissions and 1.5 million days of inpatient care per year in
the United States were due to diverticular disease, at a cost of more
than $US2.6 billion (3,4). A Canadian study (5) estimated that
133,875 admissions for diverticular disease occurred in the province of
Ontario between 1998 and 2001. In the present article, we review the
epidemiology of diverticular disease and highlight changing trends in
its demographics in North America and worldwide. We also outline
the current recommendations for the medical and surgical manage-
ment of diverticular disease.
iverticular disease is one of the most common problems encoun-
tered by general surgeons and gastroenterologists. The term refers
The incidence of diverticular disease has increased over the past cen-
tury (2,5,6). Autopsy studies from the early part of the 20th century
reported colonic diverticula rates of 2% to 10% (6). This has increased
dramatically over the years. More recent data (5) suggest that up to
50% of individuals older than 60 years of age have colonic diverticula,
with 10% to 25% developing complications such as diverticulitis.
Hospitalizations for diverticular disease have also been on the rise.
According to an American study evaluating hospitalization rates
between 1998 and 2005 (2), rates of admission for diverticular disease
increased by 26% during the eight-year study period. Similar trends
have been observed in Canadian and European data over the same
time period (5,7).
Diverticular disease has traditionally been believed to be a disease
affecting the elderly (8). The prevalence of diverticular disease is as
high as 65% by 85 years of age and estimated to be as low as 5% in those
40 years of age or younger (8). However, more recent literature has
reported an increase in the incidence of diverticular disease among
younger patients. For example, a large review of the Nationwide
Inpatient Sample (NIS) of 267,000 admissions for acute diverticulitis
between 1998 and 2005 (2) showed that the average age of patients
decreased over the study period from 64.6 to 61.8 years. Incidence
rates increased most dramatically among groups 18 to 44, and 45 to
64 years of age (incidence per 1000 population: 0.151 to 0.251, and
0.659 to 0.777, respectively). In contrast, incidence remained stable
over the study period in persons between 65 and 74 years of age, and
actually decreased in persons 75 years of age or older. Moreover, a very
high incidence of diverticular disease in young patients was reported
in a review of 238 patients admitted with diverticulitis to the sur-
gical service at the Medical Center Hospital in San Antonio, Texas
(USA) between 1981 and 1990 (9). In this review, 26% of patients
were 40 years of age or younger. These patients had a more aggres-
sive form of disease, requiring more surgical intervention than older
patients, and they exhibited a five-fold increase in the risk of compli-
cations, such as fistula, compared with their older counterparts. Given
the presumption of the low incidence of diverticular disease in young
patients, nearly one-half of these patients were often misdiagnosed at
presentation – most commonly with appendicitis.
Sex differences among patients with diverticular disease have also
been noted throughout the literature, with more recent data showing
a change in sex demographics. For example, early reports (10) sug-
gested a higher incidence of diverticular disease among men. A review
of all patients admitted to Massachusetts General Hospital
(Massachusetts, USA) between 1964 and 1973 (1) showed no differ-
ence between sexes (1). However, more recent data have shown that
although diverticular disease is still more common among men 50 years
or younger, the incidence among women predominates in older age
groups (5,7,9). The ratio of men to women with diverticulitis among
61 patients admitted to the Medical Center Hospital in San Antonio
who were younger than 40 years of age was 2:1, while women were
©2011 Pulsus Group Inc. All rights reserved
AV Weizman, GC Nguyen. Diverticular disease: Epidemiology
and management. Can J Gastroenterol 2011;25(7):385-389.
Diverticular disease of the colon is among the most prevalent condi-
tions in western society and is among the leading reasons for outpa-
tient visits and causes of hospitalization. While previously considered
to be a disease primarily affecting the elderly, there is increasing inci-
dence among individuals younger than 40 years of age. Diverticular
disease most frequently presents as uncomplicated diverticulitis, and
the cornerstone of management is antibiotic therapy and bowel rest.
Segmental colitis associated with diverticula shares common histo-
pathological features with inflammatory bowel disease and may benefit
from treatment with 5-aminosalicylates. Surgical management may be
required for patients with recurrent diverticulitis or one of its complica-
tions including peridiverticular abscess, perforation, fistulizing disease,
and strictures and/or obstruction.
Key Words: Acute diverticulitis; Diverticular disease; Epidemiology;
Recurrent diverticulitis; Segmental colitis associated with diverticula
L’épidémiologie et la prise en charge de la maladie
La maladie diverticulaire du côlon est l’une des pathologies les plus
prévalentes de la société occidentale et des principales causes de con-
sultations ambulatoires et d’hospitalisations. On croyait qu’elle tou-
chait surtout les personnes âgées, mais son incidence est en croissance
auprès des personnes de moins de 40 ans. La maladie diverticulaire se
manifeste surtout sous forme de diverticulite sans complication, et la
pierre angulaire du traitement est l’antibiothérapie et le repos intesti-
nal. La colite segmentaire associée aux diverticules partage des carac-
téristiques histopathologiques avec les maladies inflammatoires de
l’intestin et peut profiter d’un traitement aux 5-aminosalicylates. Une
prise en charge chirurgicale peut s’imposer en présence de diverticulite
récurrente ou de l’une de ses complications, y compris un abcès péridi-
verticulaire, une perforation, une fistulisation et des sténoses ou des
Weizman and Nguyen
Can J Gastroenterol Vol 25 No 7 July 2011 386
more frequently admitted in the older age group with a ratio of 1.5:1
(9). The rates of hospitalization were higher among men younger than
50 years of age, but higher for women older than 50 years of age in a
review of hospital discharges from 1989 to 2000 in England (United
Kingdom) (7). This was consisent with the findings of a Canadian
study (5) reporting that men had a hospitalization rate for diverticular
disease of 45 per 100,000 in the 40- to 49-year age group compared
with 38 per 100,000 in the same age group of women. The incidence
was 299 per 100,000 in the 80 years and older age group among men,
and 436 per 100,000 in the same age group among women. Women
had a higher overall admission rate compared with men between 1998
and 2005 in the review of the NIS database (2) mentioned above.
Men accounted for 39% of admissions compared with 60.7% for
women. This pattern was still evident at the end of the study period
(female rate of admission 58.9%; male rate of admission 41.1%).
Possible hypotheses for these sex differences have included the pro-
tective effect of testosterone on preventing weakening of the colonic
wall, and the effect of pregnancy and labour and delivery on contribut-
ing to weakening of the wall of the colon.
Diverticular disease has long been regarded as a disease of western
countries. The highest prevalence of this condition is in the United
States, Europe and Australia, where approximately 50% of the popula-
tion 60 years of age and older have diverticulosis (5,6). This common
occurrence is in contrast to that in the developing world, where coun-
tries in Africa and Asia have prevalence rates of less than 0.5%
(6,11,12). The western diet, particularly its deficiency in dietary fibre,
has long been implicated as a causative factor for these geographical
variations (6,13-16). This hypothesis was supported by a study that
compared stool weight and transit time in 1200 individuals in the
United Kingdom and rural Uganda (13). The United Kingdom sub-
jects, who were shown to have lower fibre intake, had a transit time of
80 h and a mean stool weight of 110 g/day. This was significantly
lower than in the Ugandan subjects, who had much shorter transit
times (34 h) and greater mean stool weights (450 g/day). The pro-
longed transit time and small stool volumes were believed to predis-
pose to diverticular disease by increasing intraluminal pressure.
Moreover, there is growing evidence that the rates of symptomatic
diverticular disease are on the rise because areas in the developing
world are becoming increasingly westernized (14,15). For example, the
rates of diverticular disease have increased among urban black popula-
tions of South Africa compared with rural black populations in the
same country (14). The role of dietary fibre deficiency as a contributor
to diverticular disease was further supported by a large prospective
cohort study of more than 47,000 men who were followed over a four-
year period (16). Dietary fibre intake was found to be inversely associ-
ated with the risk of developing diverticular disease, with an RR of
0.58 (95% CI 0.41 to 0.83; P=0.01).
In addition to the geographical variability in the prevalence of
diverticular disease, there is significant variability in the location of
diverticula within the colon in different regions of the world. In west-
ern countries, it has been well described that diverticulosis is primarily
left sided, particularly involving the sigmoid colon (2,6-8). This is in
contrast to findings in Asia, where right-sided diverticulosis dominates
(17-19). In a review of 615 cases of diverticulosis detected on double-
contrast barium enema examinations between 1975 and 1982 in
Tokyo, Japan (17), 70% were right sided. Similar diverticular distribu-
tion has been shown in Hong Kong and Singapore (18,19). The reason
for these differences remains unclear. Early hypotheses suggested that
left-sided diverticula were acquired, whereas right-sided diverticula
were more likely to be true diverticula and, thus, congenital (20,21).
However, subsequent studies have shown that, similar to left-sided
diverticula, the majority of right-sided diverticula are ‘false’ and are
likely acquired (18,22). In fact, as Asian populations have begun to
adopt a more westernized diet, the rates of diverticular disease have
been shown to increase to the same extent noted in the west (17).
This increase in diverticular disease, however, remains predominantly
right sided. Factors other than deficiencies in dietary fibre are likely to
play a role in the development of right-sided diverticulosis as demon-
strated by studies that show that even with a high-fibre diet, the rates
of right-sided disease are high. For example, a study from China (23)
reported a diverticulosis rate of 62% in patients with high-fibre intake
(greater than 14 g/day). More research is needed in this area to better
identify potential causative factors.
MANAGEMENT OF DIVERTICULAR DISEASE
The clinical spectrum of diverticular disease is variable, ranging from
uncomplicated presentations, such as episodic pain or mild diverticu-
litis, to potentially life-threatening complicated disease such as
abscess, perforation or hemorrhage. Episodes of mild nonspecific
abdominal pain, often left sided, can sometimes be attributed to diver-
ticular disease (24). This pain usually occurs in the absence of fever or
abnormal laboratory investigations, and is accompanied by an
unremarkable physical examination. It may be difficult to clearly asso-
ciate these episodes with the presence of diverticulosis. These patients
can often be observed without any intervention. Alternatively, there is
some evidence that increasing dietary fibre may improve symptoms.
This was reported in a small randomized trial of 18 patients (25) that
showed significant improvement in pain and a decreased number of
painful episodes in the high-fibre group at three months.
Segmental colitis associated with diverticula
The clinical entity of segmental colitis associated with diverticula
(SCAD) has become increasingly recognized and is characterized by
friable mucosa in the region of diverticula, but typically not involving
the diverticula itself and never involving the rectum (26). Patients
may present with chronic abdominal pain, particularly left sided, with
occasional hematochezia. Pathologically, the mucosa can be indistin-
guishable from inflammatory bowel disease (27). Case reports have
suggested that patients with SCAD may progress to develop Crohn’s
disease or ulcerative colitis, hypothesizing that there is a pathophysio-
logical link (28). Given this finding, some investigators have evalu-
ated the use of 5-aminosalicylates as a therapy (29). In an uncontrolled
Italian study (30), 70 of 86 patients treated with mesalamine 2.4 g/day
for 10 days followed by eight weeks of treatment with 1.6 g/day showed
complete resolution of symptoms with no recurrence.
Diverticulitis without any significant complications accounts for more
than 75% of cases (31,32). These patients typically present with left
lower quadrant pain, fever and leukocytosis, and the diagnosis is con-
firmed on computed tomography scan. The mainstay of treatment in
these patients with uncomplicated diverticulitis is antibiotics, bowel
rest or a clear fluid diet, with pain control as needed (24). Antibiotic
therapy should be aimed at the usual enteric bacteria with Gram-
negative and anaerobe coverage. Common outpatient regimens
include oral ciprofloxacin and metronidazole, or amoxicillin/clavulanate.
For hospitalized patients, an intravenous regimen with broad-spectrum
coverage should be selected and may include the following: ceftriax-
one and metronidazole; monotherapy with beta-lactam/beta-lactamase
inhibitor (eg, piperacillin/tazobactam); or meropenem (33,34). The
duration of treatment is typically seven to 10 days.
The decision to admit a patient is based on their clinical status
at presentation, the absence of high fever, or significant laboratory
or radiographic abnormalities (Figure 1) (24). These patients should
be reliable and well supported at home, with the ability to return to
hospital if their clinical condition worsens. The immunosuppressed
patient should be admitted even if the presentation is mild because
they may have more subtle signs, and some data suggest that they are
less likely to respond to conventional medical therapy (35). Patients
with uncomplicated diverticulitis should be followed and be expected
to improve two to three days after presentation, at which time, diet
can slowly be advanced (24). Failure to improve should prompt repeat
imaging to search for complications and undergo surgical consultation
Diverticular disease: Epidemiology and management
Can J Gastroenterol Vol 25 No 7 July 2011 387
(36). Approximately 25% patients will require surgery for nonresolv-
ing diverticulitis (37). Four to six weeks following resolution of the
first attack of diverticulitis, patients should undergo endoscopic evalu-
ation to characterize the distribution of diverticula and to exclude any
other diagnosis such as colorectal cancer (36).
There are limited data regarding strategies to reduce the risk of
diverticulitis recurrence. Given the epidemiological associations
between deficiencies in fibre and the incidence of diverticulitis
described above, some studies have suggested that a high-fibre diet
may be an effective prevention strategy (5,6,12-16); however, support-
ive evidence is limited. One of the few randomized studies to evaluate
this strategy involved 58 patients randomly assigned to a diet high in
bran crispbread, ispaghula drink or placebo (38). There was no differ-
ence in the subsequent development of symptomatic diverticular dis-
ease among the three groups, although the high-fibre groups
experienced lower rates of constipation. This is in contrast to a small
study of 18 patients (25) that showed decreased episodes of diverticu-
litis at three months in a high-fibre group. Given its potential benefit,
the most recent guidelines from the American Society of Colon and
Rectal Surgeons (39) advocate the use of a high-fibre diet after resolu-
tion of diverticulitis in an attempt to reduce recurrence. A large num-
ber of physicians recommend a diet low in nuts and seeds in an
effort to reduce the risk of recurrent diverticulitis. In fact, a survey
of 373 colorectal surgeons (34) suggested that approximately one-half
recommend the avoidance of seeds and nuts. However, a large cohort
study of 47,000 male health professionals followed over an 18-year
period (40) found no association between a diet high in corn, seeds or
nuts, and subsequent risk of developing diverticulitis. Thus, avoidance
of seeds and nuts is not supported by the literature and likely has no
role in the management of these patients.
Approximately one-third of patients will experience recurrence of diver-
ticulitis following an initial episode of uncomplicated diverticulitis
(11,12). Some of the earlier literature suggested that recurrent diverticu-
litis typically had a more severe course. Consequently, guidelines in the
1990s and earlier recommended elective sigmoid resection following the
second episode of diverticulitis (11,36). However, more recent evidence
(41,42) has shown that recurrent diverticulitis does not necessarily fol-
low a more aggressive course. The most recent guidelines released by the
American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons (39) recommend that
the decision to perform a sigmoid resection following an episode, and
recovery following a second episode of acute diverticulitis, should be
made on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration the patient’s age
and comorbidities, as well as the frequency and severity of the attacks.
These recommendations are consistent with those from the Society for
Surgery of the Alimentary Tract (43). Although there is no consensus
on the threshold number of attacks of diverticulitis before surgery is
recommended, a decision analysis (44) showed that deferring surgery
until the fourth attack decreased mortality by 0.5% and need for colos-
tomy by 0.7% compared with operating after the second attack.
Diverticulitis in younger patients
The optimal management of young patients presenting with uncompli-
cated diverticulitis is unclear. As mentioned above, some evidence
suggests that young patients are more likely to experience a virulent
course and are at a higher cumulative risk of recurrence because of their
young age (9,29). This has led some experts to recommend surgery for
young patients (younger than 50 years of age) after the initial episode
of diverticulitis (9,29). For example, in a study of 52 patients younger
than 50 years of age admitted with diverticulitis (45), those younger
than 40 years of age had a higher rate of complicated disease compared
with those older than 40 years of age (72% versus 35%), and they were
significantly more likely to require immediate surgery (40% versus 13%,
respectively; P=0.04). However, the most recent guidelines from the
American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons (36,39) advocated
that the timing for surgery in younger patients with acute diverticulitis
be determined on a case-by-case basis.
The rates of elective surgery following resolution of uncomplicated
diverticulitis appear to be increasing (2). A 38% increase in elective
operations was noted in a review of the NIS between 1998 and 2005
(2), with the most significant increase reported in patients 44 years of
age or younger (73% increase). These trends have been accompanied
by declines in the rates of surgical mortality (1.6% to 1.0%) and length
of hospital stay (5.9 days to 5.3 days). More than 90% of elective sur-
geries for diverticulitis resulted in primary anastomoses. The American
Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons has recommended laparoscopic
resection whenever possible (39). A Dutch randomized controlled trial
(46) that randomly assigned 104 patients to either open or laparoscopic
sigmoid resection found that a laparoscopic approach was associated
with fewer major complications, less pain and shorter length of hospital
Up to 25% of patients with acute diverticulitis develop complicated dis-
ease (7). This includes abscess formation, fistulas, strictures/obstruction
and perforation. Abscess occurs with the perforation of a diverticulum
that is usually contained (24). Small abscesses (smaller than 3 cm)
can often be treated with antibiotics alone (47). Larger abscesses
(larger than 4 cm) may require computed tomography-guided percuta-
neous drainage followed by eventual surgery after resolution of the
abscess (48). Perforating diverticular disease may also lead to fistula,
with the most common locations being colovesicular and colovaginal
(49). Fistula complications require surgical management.
Recurrent episodes of diverticulitis can lead to fibrosis and
stricturing of the colon, resulting in obstruction most often in the
sigmoid colon (24). In managing these strictures, malignancy must
first be excluded with surgery indicated if this cannot be definitively
achieved (39). Endoscopic dilation can often provide temporary relief
of symptoms and allow more access to a stricture to obtain biopsy
(50). Moreover, the role of endoscopic stenting in diverticular disease
Figure 1) Treatment algorithm for acute diverticulitis. CT Computed tom-
ography; IV Intravenous; NPO Non per oral
Weizman and Nguyen
Can J Gastroenterol Vol 25 No 7 July 2011 388
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is evolving. In a review of 16 patients who underwent stenting for
diverticular strictures (51), the procedure was successful in all individ-
uals, allowing subsequent elective resection to be single stage. Similar
results have been reported in smaller series (52), all of which support
the role of stenting as a temporary measure to enable more elective
surgery when the patient’s status is more optimized.
Although frank perforation and peritonitis are uncommon compli-
cations of diverticulitis, subsequent mortality may be as high as 30%
(53). Thus, prompt recognition of this complication along with early
resuscitation, antibiotics and exploratory surgery are cornerstones of
management. These patients usually require a Hartmann’s procedure,
with subsequent closure of colostomy after several months (54).
Emergent surgeries for complicated diverticular diseases are commonly
performed in multiple stages, usually involving temporary stomas (54).
However, even in emergency settings, primary anastomosis may be
considered under certain conditions. The Hinchey’s classification sys-
tem is a decision-making tool designed to aid in determining the suit-
ability of primary anastomosis in complicated diverticular disease (55).
The classification is characterized by the following four stages: perico-
lic or mesenteric abscess; walled-off pelvic abscess; generalized puru-
lent peritonitis; and generalized fecal peritonitis. Although somewhat
controversial, some studies, including a recent meta-analysis (56), sug-
gest that patients with stage I or II disease can be safely treated with a
primary anastomosis, even in the emergent setting. However, the
review of the NIS database from 1998 to 2005 (2) reported low rates of
primary anastomosis in the acute setting.
Diverticular disease is an increasingly common problem that has
widely varying presentation ranging from mild outpatient-treated
problems to life-threatening perforations requiring emergency surgery.
A higher index of suspicion in younger patients is needed because
diverticular disease appears to be increasing in incidence among this
age group. While it remains primarily a surgically treated disease, med-
ical treatments, such as mesalamine and evolving endoscopic tech-
niques, allow the gastroenterologist to play an important role in
managing these patients. It remains a clinical challenge for physicians
at many levels including general practioners, emergency room phys-
icians, gastroenterologists and general surgeons.
younger patients because hospitalization rates in those younger
than 40 years of age has significantly increased over the past
medically managed with antibiotics and bowel rest or clear
outpatient basis in selected patients who do not have
comorbidities (including immunocomprised state) and can
tolerate a liquid diet in the absence of fever, significant
leukocytosis or evidence of complicated disease on imaging.
including abscess, perforation, fistulizing disease and
strictures/obstruction usually require surgery.
bowel disease and often responds to 5-aminosalicylate therapy.
Diverticular disease: Epidemiology and management
Can J Gastroenterol Vol 25 No 7 July 2011 389
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