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Intestinal Lymphangiectasia


Zubair Malik

, MD, Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University

Reviewed/Revised Mar 2023
Topic Resources
  • This disorder is the result of improperly formed intestinal lymph vessels or blockage of lymph flow from the intestines.

  • Diarrhea and swelling of the legs are the main symptoms.

  • The diagnosis is based on the results of a biopsy.

  • Once the specific cause of the disorder is treated, following a low-fat, high-protein diet and taking supplements can help manage symptoms.

The lymph vessels (see Overview of the Lymphatic System Overview of the Lymphatic System The lymphatic system is a vital part of the immune system. It includes organs such as the thymus, bone marrow, spleen, tonsils, appendix, and Peyer patches in the small intestine that produce... read more ) from the digestive tract carry digested fats that were absorbed by the small intestine. Sometimes, children are born with intestinal wall lymph vessels that are improperly formed, which causes blockage of the flow of lymph fluid. These children are typically diagnosed before 3 years of age.

Less commonly, the flow of lymph fluid from the digestive tract becomes blocked later in life as a result of such conditions as inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis Overview of Pancreatitis Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas. The pancreas is a leaf-shaped organ about 5 inches (about 13 centimeters) long. It is surrounded by the lower edge of the stomach and the first... read more ), tumors, or stiffening of the sac that envelops the heart (constrictive pericarditis). Blockage of the lymph flow causes lymph fluid to leak back into the intestine, preventing fat and proteins from being absorbed.

The Small Intestine

Symptoms of Intestinal Lymphangiectasia

A person with intestinal lymphangiectasia has swelling of one or both legs and diarrhea.

Nausea, vomiting, fatty stools, and abdominal pain may also develop.

Children have delayed growth.

Diagnosis of Intestinal Lymphangiectasia

  • Biopsy

  • Sometimes contrast lymphangiography

Doctors usually make the diagnosis by removing tissue (biopsy) from the small intestine using an endoscope (a flexible viewing tube equipped with a light source and a camera through which a small clipper can be inserted). The tissue that is removed is then examined under a microscope.

Sometimes doctors inject a liquid that can be seen on x-rays (contrast agent Radiographic Contrast Agents Radiographic contrast agents are substances used to distinguish between internal structures in medical imaging, such as various types of x-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). During imaging... read more ) into lymph vessels in the foot (called contrast lymphangiography). The liquid travels to the abdomen and chest and can show the abnormal intestinal lymph vessels.

Other blood tests are done to look for complications of the disorder. People may have low levels of protein, cholesterol, and white blood cells in the blood. The low protein levels result in tissue swelling.

Treatment of Intestinal Lymphangiectasia

  • Treatment of cause

  • Supplements and changes in diet

  • Sometimes surgery

When intestinal lymphangiectasia is caused by a specific condition, that condition is treated.

Symptoms can be helped by eating a low-fat, high-protein diet and taking supplements of calcium, vitamins, and certain triglycerides (medium-chain triglycerides) which are absorbed directly into the blood and not through the lymph vessels.

Sometimes surgery on the intestines or the blocked lymph vessels can help.

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