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Papal procedure

Diverticulitis is common among the elderly, including Pope Francis.

Article Author: Carolyn Tillo

Article Date:

Diverticulitis signs and symptoms

When something happens to the Pope, the whole world watches. So, when Pope Francis underwent surgery in early July 2021, everyone wondered why.

Turns out, it was for diverticulitis, a condition that develops when pouches formed in the lining of the colon become infected or inflamed. This can lead to pain in the lower left side of the abdomen, fever, and constipation or diarrhea, explained Ron Landmann, MD, chief of colon and rectal surgery for Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Determining causes of diverticulitis

How does a person develop this condition?

Diverticula – little pouches made of the lining of the colon wall – form over time due to a low-fiber diet, leading to a benign condition called diverticulosis. Dr. Landmann said this is fairly common, and people often live with diverticulosis without it. Rarely though, the diverticula may get inflamed, infected, or lead to perforations, all of which are forms and spectra of diverticulitis.

“It’s when the pains or irregular bowel movements associated with fevers occur repeatedly that people end up going to their primary care physician, getting an order for a CT scan, and then discovering they have diverticulitis,” Dr. Landmann said.

He added that people who eat high-fat and low-fiber diets may be more at risk for diverticulitis than those following fiber-rich diets.

Raphael Balbino, MD, a geriatrician with Baptist AgeWell Center for Health, said age could also lead to diverticulitis, as the colon gets eroded or worn down with time.

“Obesity and a history of smoking could also lead to an increased risk,” Dr. Balbino said.

Prevention suggestions

Dr. Landmann and Dr. Balbino provided recommendations to help prevent or minimize your risk of developing diverticulitis.

  • Eat a high-fiber diet, with lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, bran and whole grains.
  • Consider natural sources of probiotics such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha and senna tea.
  • Avoid processed foods and red meats.
  • Drink 8-10 glasses of water a day.
  • Consider taking a fiber supplement, if your physician recommends it. Most people should aim for 20-30 grams of soluble fiber daily.
  • Exercise frequently.

Treatment options

Adjustments in diet and occasional antibiotics are typically all that is needed for acute management of an attack of diverticulitis, Dr. Landmann explained.

In the Pope’s case, the severe narrowing of his colon due to recurrent cycles of inflammation and scarring from diverticulitis required surgery to improve bowel function. A portion of his colon was removed and the remaining healthy parts of his colon were stapled back together.

“At Baptist MD-Anderson, surgery is typically robotic and/or minimally invasive, ensuring patients can eat and walk around that same day and leave the hospital the day after the procedure,” Dr. Landmann said. “In the Pope’s case, he may have required additional recovery time due to his age, and his special role!”

If you are experiencing any symptoms of diverticulitis, visiting a primary care physician is a good place to start. Call 904.202.4YOU or click here to connect with a Baptist Health care coordinator, who will help find the right doctor for you.

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