Mesenteric Ischemia – Quick Consult
Last Updated / Reviewed: 4/5/2021

Key History
Key Physical Exam
Risk Factors for Mesenteric Ischemia
Differential Diagnosis
Diagnostic Testing
Clinical Risk and Safety Pearls


Mesenteric ischemia is a reduction in intestinal blood flow. There are four causes of mesenteric ischemia: arterial emboli, arterial thrombosis, venous thrombosis or non-occlusive ischemia. Mesenteric ischemia may lead to sepsis, bowel infarction, and death. If diagnosis takes place before infarction occurs mortality is low. Diagnoses made after infarction results in mortality ranging between 70%-90%. Vague nonspecific symptoms make this a challenge to diagnose.

Intestinal ischemia can be divided into acute and chronic, based upon the rate of onset and the degree to which blood flow is compromised. Acute mesenteric ischemia refers to the sudden onset of intestinal hypoperfusion, which can be due to occlusive or nonocclusive obstruction of arterial or venous blood flow. Chronic mesenteric ischemia (also called intestinal angina) refers to episodic or constant intestinal hypoperfusion, which usually develops in patients with mesenteric atherosclerotic disease.

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Key History

  • Acute severe onset of persistent abdominal pain
  • Pain can be periumbilical, crampy, dull, diffuse
  • Pain is often out of proportion to exam findings
  • A patient with a history of sudden pain followed by forceful bowel evacuation with minimal abdominal signs should be evaluated for mesenteric ischemia.
  • Sudden onset of pain is often associated with embolic ischemic disease. A slower onset of pain is seen with vasculitis, thrombotic or non-occlusive mesenteric ischemia.
  • Pain often precedes vomiting.
  • Chronic mesenteric ischemia may present with abdominal pain after eating, weight loss, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
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Physical Exam

  • The hallmark is pain out of proportion to exam findings.
  • The abdominal exam may be normal.
  • Abdominal distention – worsening as ischemia progresses
  • Heme positive stool – increases in frequency as ischemia progresses
  • Rebound, tenderness and guarding may be absent.
  • Later in the presentation the abdomen becomes distended, bowel sounds are absent and peritoneal signs are present.
  • Foul smelling breath may be present.
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Risk Factors for Mesenteric Ischemia

  • Advanced age – over 50
  • Arteriosclerotic disease
  • Cardiac arrhythmias
  • Cardiac valvular diseases
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • History of abdominal angina
  • History of abdominal malignancy
  • History of DVT or other venous thrombosis
  • Hypercoagulable state – paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria, factor V Leiden mutation, myeloproliferative syndromes
  • Low cardiac output states
  • Systemic vasculitis
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Differential Diagnosis

Gastrointestinal Genitourinary Other
  • Diabetes ketoacidosis
  • Hemolytic uremic syndromes
  • Henoch-Schönlein purpura
  • Herpes zoster
  • Pneumonia
  • Sickle cell crisis
  • Streptococcal pharyngitis

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Diagnostic Testing

Text / literature information and recommendations include:
  • Labs:
    • Guaiac evaluation
    • CBC - may show leukocytosis, elevated hematocrit consistent with hemoconcentration
    • Complete metabolic profile (CMP) may demonstrate a metabolic acidosis.
    • Serum lactate may be elevated – sensitivity ranging from 77-100%. Elevated serum lactate should raise the suspicion of mesenteric ischemia. Unfortunately the elevation rises after the bowel has necrosed.
    • Amylase has been shown to be elevated in about 50% of patients with intestinal ischemia.
    • LDH has been shown to be elevated in bowel infarction but does not distinguish between ischemia and infarction.

  • Imaging:
    • Abdominal CT is commonly used to screen hemodynamically stable patients with acute abdominal pain.
    • If the index of suspicion for intestinal ischemia is high, consider multi-detector CT angiography or magnetic resonance angiography.
    • CT should be performed without oral contrast, which can obscure the mesenteric vessels, obscure bowel wall enhancement, and lead to a delay in diagnosis.
    • CT is generally preferred over MR due to related cost, speed and availability.
    • More data is needed regarding whether CT or MR is more sensitive related to small thromboemboli and early reversible ischemia.
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Clinical Risk and Safety Pearls

  • Immediate treatment of hemodynamic status (hypotension, CHF)
  • Any abdominal pain patient with a metabolic acidosis should be considered for mesenteric ischemia until proven otherwise.
  • Normal labs do not exclude the diagnosis of mesenteric ischemia
  • A rectal exam may be of particular use in these patients with abdominal pain. A positive guaiac with no other apparent cause of GI bleeding may increase clinical suspicion for mesenteric ischemia.
  • A rectal exam is generally required in all patients with abdominal pain. A positive guaiac with no other apparent cause of GI bleeding my increase clinical suspicion for mesenteric ischemia.
  • Patients with mesenteric ischemia and signs of peritonitis generally require immediate surgical intervention.
  • This diagnosis is often delayed. Risk of delay can be reduced by maintaining a high clinical suspicion and use of early diagnostic imaging and early surgical consultation.
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Common text / literature recommendations include:
  • Surgical Consult – emergent
  • IV hydration
  • Triple antibiotic coverage – clindamycin, genatmycin and metronidazole.
  • Further treatment is guided by results of the arteriography or multidetector CT scan.
  • Acute arterial embolus: treatment options include papaverine infusion, surgical embolectomy, and intra-arterial thrombolysis.
  • Acute arterial thrombosis: treatment options include papaverine infusion and arterial reconstruction either through aortosuperior mesenteric arterial bypass grafting or re-implantation of the SMA to the aorta.
  • Nonocclusive mesenteric ischemia: treatment is papaverine infusion.
  • Mesenteric venous thrombosis: treatment is anticoagulation with heparin/warfarin either alone or in combination with surgery.
  • Chronic mesenteric ischemia: treatment options are angioplasty with or without stent placement or surgical revascularization.
  • Avoid drugs that decrease mesenteric circulation – digoxin, propranolol, pitressin and vasopressors
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  1. Acosta S, Björck M. Modern treatment of acute mesenteric ischaemia. Br J Surg. 2014; 101:e100.
  2. Acosta S, Alhadad A, Svensson P, Ekberg O. Epidemiology, risk and prognostic factors in mesenteric venous thrombosis. Br J Surg. 2008; 95:1245.
  3. Aschoff AJ, Stuber G, Becker BW, et al. Evaluation of acute mesenteric ischemia: accuracy of biphasic mesenteric multi-detector CT angiography. Abdom Imaging. 2009; 34:345.
  4. Carver TW, Vora RS, Taneja A. Mesenteric ischemia. Crit Care Clin. 2016;32(2):155-171.
  5. Cudnik MT, Darbha S, Jones J, et al. The diagnosis of acute mesenteric ischemia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Acad Emerg Med. 2013; 20:1087.
  6. Demirpolat, G, Oran, I, Tamsel, S, et al. Acute mesenteric ischemia: endovascular therapy. Abdom Imaging 2007; 32:299.
  7. Kärkkäinen JM, Acosta S. Acute mesenteric ischemia (part 1) – Incidence, etiologies and how to improve early diagnosis. Best Pract Res Clin Gastroenterol. 2017;31(1):15-25.
  8. Menke J. Diagnostic accuracy of multidetector CT in acute mesenteric ischemia: systematic review and meta-analysis. Radiology. 2010; 256:93.
  9. Sise MJ. Acute mesenteric ischemia. Surg Clin North Am. 2014;94(1):165-181.

This is intended solely as reference material and is not a recommendation for any specific patient. The practitioner must rely upon his or her own professional judgment and medical decision-making to determine whether it is relevant in a particular case. Materials are derived from medical and nursing texts, medical literature and national guidelines and should not be considered complete or authoritative. Users must rely on specific patient presentation, experience and judgment when utilizing any of the information contained herein relative to an actual patient.

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