(See Overview of Gastrointestinal Emergencies Overview of Gastrointestinal Emergencies Certain gastrointestinal disorders can be life threatening and require emergency treatment. For many people, emergency treatment involves surgery. Abdominal pain, often severe, usually accompanies... read more .)
Acute mesenteric ischemia has multiple causes. The most common are
Arterial embolism is a blood clot or piece of atherosclerotic plaque material (the buildup of cholesterol and other fatty materials in an artery) that travels from its origin in the heart or aorta to lodge in the smaller arteries (in this case those of the intestines).
Arterial thrombus is a blood clot that forms spontaneously in the arteries or veins, including those of the intestines, blocking flow.
Sometimes flow is not blocked completely but is simply too low because of low heart output (as in heart failure Heart Failure (HF) Heart failure is a disorder in which the heart is unable to keep up with the demands of the body, leading to reduced blood flow, back-up (congestion) of blood in the veins and lungs, and/or... read more or shock Shock Shock is a life-threatening condition in which blood flow to the organs is low, decreasing delivery of oxygen and thus causing organ damage and sometimes death. Blood pressure is usually low... read more ) or because certain drugs (such as cocaine) narrow the blood vessels. In general, people older than 50 years are at greatest risk.
Blockage of blood flow for more than 6 hours can cause the affected area of intestine to die, allowing intestinal bacteria to invade the person's system. Shock, organ failure, and death are likely if intestinal death occurs.
At first, the person has severe abdominal pain Acute Abdominal Pain Abdominal pain is common and often minor. Severe abdominal pain that comes on quickly, however, almost always indicates a significant problem. The pain may be the only sign of the need for surgery... read more , usually developing suddenly, but only mild pain occurs when the doctor presses on the abdomen during the examination (unlike in disorders such as appendicitis or diverticulitis, in which pressing makes the pain much worse). Later, as the intestine starts to die, the doctor's examination of the abdomen causes more severe pain.
If the person has typical symptoms of acute mesenteric ischemia or if the abdomen is very tender, doctors usually take the person right to surgery.
If the diagnosis of acute mesenteric ischemia is not clear, doctors do CT angiography CT angiography In computed tomography (CT), which used to be called computed axial tomography (CAT), an x-ray source and x-ray detector rotate around a person. In modern scanners, the x-ray detector usually... read more (a special CT scan using radiopaque dye injected in an arm vein to produce images of blood vessels) to look for swelling of the intestines or blockages in the arteries that supply blood to the intestines.
X-rays Plain X-Rays X-rays are high-energy radiation waves that can penetrate most substances (to varying degrees). In very low doses, x-rays are used to produce images that help doctors diagnose disease. In high... read more or magnetic resonance imaging Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) In magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a strong magnetic field and very high frequency radio waves are used to produce highly detailed images. MRI does not use x-rays and is usually very safe... read more (MRI) of the abdomen are other tests that may be done.
If the doctor can make the diagnosis and begin treatment early, people usually recover well. If the diagnosis is not made or if treatment is not started until some of the affected intestine has died, 70 to 90% of people die. A person cannot survive if almost all the small intestine dies or is removed.
If mesenteric ischemia is diagnosed during surgery, the blood vessel blockage can sometimes be removed or bypassed, but other times the affected intestine must be removed.
If mesenteric ischemia is diagnosed during CT angiography, doctors may try to relieve the blockage in the blood vessels using angiography. In angiography, a small flexible tube (catheter) is threaded through the artery in the groin and into the arteries of the intestines. If a blockage is seen during angiography, sometimes it can be opened by injecting certain drugs, suctioning out a blood clot using a special angiography catheter, or inflating a small balloon within the artery to widen it and then placing a small tube or manufactured mesh (stent) to keep it open. If doctors cannot successfully open the blockage using these procedures, the person needs surgery to open the blockage or to remove the affected portion of the intestine.
After recovery, many people need to take a drug to help prevent blood clotting.