Ischaemic colitis

Ischaemic colitis refers to inflammation of the colon secondary to vascular insufficiency and ischaemia. It is sometimes considered under the same spectrum as intestinal ischaemia. The severity and consequences of the disease are highly variable.

Ischaemic bowel is typically a disease of the elderly (age >60 years) where atherosclerotic disease or low flow states are usually the cause 2. It is rare in younger individuals, where it is more likely to be related to vasculitis or hypercoagulable states.

Presenting symptoms include abdominal pain and bloody stools. Tenderness may be present particularly in the left side of the abdomen. In severe cases where necrosis and perforation have occurred the signs and symptoms are those of peritonitis.

Location of the ischaemia relates to the anatomy of the mesenteric vessels:

Low flow states and non-occlusive vessel disease are most common and typically lead to ischaemic colitis in watershed areas while complete vessel occlusion can produce an involvement of the entire vascular territory, e.g. acute SMA occlusion

Diminished or absent blood flow leads to bowel wall ischaemia and secondary inflammation. Bacterial contamination may produce superimposed pseudomembranous inflammation. If necrosis develops then ulcerations or perforation can occur. Following the acute event, fibrosis may lead to stricture of the bowel lumen. Different pathological outcomes include 9 :

  • gangrenous (15-20%)
  • non-gangrenous (80-85%):
    • reversible
    • non-reversible (chronic colitis, stricture formation)

The causes can be categorised as follows:

Abdominal radiographs are often normal, but signs include:

  • dilatation due to ileus
  • 'thumbprinting' due to mucosal oedema/haemorrhage
  • localised intramural gas (pneumatosis coli) if necrotic
  • free intraperitoneal gas if perforated

Contrast enema is abnormal in 90% 7 but is rarely used for diagnostic purposes:

  • segmental region of abnormality
  • 'thumbprinting' which is classically obliterated by air insufflation 8 
  • spasm
  • ulcerations 'serrated mucosa' 7
  • stricture from fibrosis as a late complication of ischaemia

Ultrasound is of limited use due to bowel gas but may show:

  • luminal thickening of the affected segment with or without stratification 3
  • hypoechoic wall due to oedema
  • areas of increased echogenicity if haemorrhage
  • echogenic foci with shadowing if intramural gas
  • reduced peristalsis may be observed
  • Doppler imaging of the SMA origin can be useful in assessing for stenoses

Contrast enhanced imaging is the modality of choice. Features include:

  • segmental region of abnormality
  • symmetrical or lobulated thickening of the bowel wall
  • irregularly narrowed lumen
  • submucosal oedema may produce low-density ring bordering lumen (target sign)
  • intramural or portal venous gas
  • mesenteric oedema
  • superior mesenteric artery or vein thrombus/occlusion may be demonstrated

Can show mesenteric artery occlusion if present. Otherwise, angiography may show increased arterial calibre, accelerated arteriovenous transit time and dilated draining veins due to the inflammatory response.In mesenteric venous thrombosis, the veins may not be visualised, and collateral venous filling may be seen 7.

Increased uptake of Tc99m (V) DMSA tracer in the ischaemic bowel may be present but is unreliable 4.

Mesenteric arterial or venous occlusion can be treated with anticoagulation or thrombolysis, either systemically or locally. Percutaneous vascular intervention in acute mesenteric artery occlusion is often successful and may involve a combination of thrombus aspiration, thrombolysis and arterial stenting 5. Surgical resection is indicated in cases of peritonitis, perforation, severe sepsis and massive haemorrhage. Symptomatic strictures may also require surgery 9 .

Prognosis is variable 6:

  • resolution without ongoing complications ~50% 
  • persistent colitis ~20%
  • ischemic stricture ~10%
  • gangrene or perforation ~20%

Occlusive mesenteric infarction (embolus or thrombosis) has a high mortality rate (~90%) compared to non-occlusive ischaemia (~10%).

Imaging differential considerations include:

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Article information

rID: 1528
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:
  • Ischemic colitis

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    Case 3: with "thumbprinting" sign
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