Superior mesenteric artery stenosis

Case contributed by Brendan Cullinane
Diagnosis probable


Upper abdominal pain after ingestion of food. The patient revealed that the pain was in the middle of the abdomen, severe, that she could not stand the thought of eating and had lost a substantial amount of weight. She was not diabetic nor a smoker but had high blood pressure and cholesterol, which were both medicated.

Patient Data

Age: 80 years
Gender: Female

Superior mesenteric artery stenosis:  maximum peak systolic velocity (PSV) of 304 cm/s and spectral broadening in the proximal SMA. This velocity exceeds the accepted PSV of 275 cm/s for the grading of a >70% stenosis. The waveform is also turbulent.

Annotated image

In the reconstruction, narrowing of the lumen (arrow) is clearly shown extending distally from the origin and clear of any calcification. FYI, it took several hours of work to achieve this image. (CT-A and reconstruction by David Sloane, diagnosis by Dr. Gary Geier).

Case Discussion

There was ultrasound evidence of a proximal superior mesenteric artery (SMA) stenosis of >70% based on the published criteria. Velocities were elevated to a maximum of 304 cm/s with spectral broadening and post-stenotic turbulence. CT angiography (CTA) confirmed the presence of a stenosis. Maximum volume reduction estimated by CTA was 50-60% over a very short segment of 4 mm. There was some calcification at the SMA origin but the stenotic segment was clearly seen extending distally to this on the reconstruction.

The patient was referred for assessment by a consultant vascular surgeon. After clinical assessment and taking the patient's history, the surgeon concluded that she did not have symptoms of mesenteric angina and he could not hear an abdominal bruit. A repeat ultrasound at his vascular lab did not reveal any elevated velocities within the SMA but a 50-70% inferior mesenteric artery (IMA) stenosis was diagnosed based on a maximum velocity of 266 cm/s. No velocity data for the SMA were mentioned in his report.

The surgeon downplayed the CT-A findings stating that calcifications around arterial origins are a "very common finding and make the interpretation of CT angiography very difficult" and that he has found that "the estimation of any stenosis is very inaccurate".

There is clearly calcification but that it is of questionable significance. The CTA is unequivocal as the stenosis extends away from the area of calcification the in-house ultrasound findings demonstrate parameters that point to luminal narrowing.

The assessment of the true significance of any mesenteric arterial pathology must be made in regards to the clinical picture. Is a "haemodynamically significant stenosis" really significant? Probably not if there is adequate collateralisation. We have seen completely occluded and highly stenosed celiac axes, yet in each case, the patients were alive and functioning due to a large collateral extending from the bowel to the splenic artery.

As for the different results in the ultrasound assessment: different days, different machines, different transducers, different operators - they all make a difference.

This case study and other cases of mesenteric artery stenosis we have encountered in our practice begs the question: are the published velocity criteria for grading stenoses of the mesenteric arteries relevant anymore? These criteria were determined quite a while ago in terms of "ultrasound years". There has been rapid development of ultrasound technology since this time.

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