IM Board Review

A 57-year-old woman with abdominal pain

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A 57-year-old woman presented to the emergency department with left lower quadrant pain, which had started 1 week earlier and was constant, dull, aching, and nonradiating. There were no aggravating or alleviating factors. The pain was associated with low-grade fever and nausea. She reported no vomiting, no change in bowel habits, and no hematemesis, hematochezia, or melena. She did not have urinary urgency, frequency, or dysuria. She had no cardiac, respiratory, or neurologic symptoms.

Her medical history included hypothyroidism, type 2 diabetes mellitus, diverticulosis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Her medications included metformin, insulin, levothyroxine, and inhaled tiotropium. She had no allergies. She had never undergone surgery, including cesarean delivery. She was postmenopausal. She had two children, both of whom had been born vaginally at full term. She denied using alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs. Her family history was noncontributory.

On examination, she was not in acute distress. Her temperature was 36.7°C (98.1°F), blood pressure 130/90 mm Hg, heart rate 86 beats per minute and regular, respiratory rate 16 breaths per minute, and oxygen saturation 98% on ambient air. Examination of her head and neck was unremarkable. Cardiopulmonary examination was normal. Abdominal examination revealed normal bowel sounds, mild tenderness in the left lower quadrant with localized guarding, and rebound tenderness. Neurologic examination was unremarkable.

Initial laboratory data showed mild leukocytosis. Computed tomography with contrast of the abdomen and pelvis suggested acute diverticulitis.


The patient was admitted with an initial diagnosis of acute diverticulitis. She was started on antibiotics, hydration, and pain medications, and her abdominal pain gradually improved.

On the third hospital day, she suddenly experienced shortness of breath and palpitations. At the time of admission her electrocardiogram had been normal, but it now showed atrial fibrillation with a rapid ventricular response. She also developed elevated troponin levels, which were thought to represent type 2 non-ST-elevation myocardial infarction.

She was started on aspirin, clopidogrel, and anticoagulation with heparin bridged with warfarin for the new-onset atrial fibrillation. Her heart rate was controlled with metoprolol, and her shortness of breath improved. An echocardiogram was normal.

Figure 1. Ecchymosis of the abdominal wall, predominantly of the right flank (Grey Turner sign).

On the seventh hospital day, she developed severe right-sided lower abdominal pain and bruising. Her blood pressure was 90/60 mm Hg, heart rate 110 beats per minute and irregularly irregular, respiratory rate 22 breaths per minute, and oxygen saturation 97% on room air. Her abdomen was diffusely tender with a palpable mass in the right lower quadrant and hypoactive bowel sounds. Ecchymosis was noted (Figure 1).


1. What is the likely cause of her decompensation?

  • Acute mesenteric ischemia
  • Perforation of the gastrointestinal tract
  • Rectus sheath hematoma
  • Abdominal compartment syndrome due to acute pancreatitis

Acute mesenteric ischemia

Signs and symptoms of acute mesenteric ischemia can be vague. Moreover, when it leads to bowel necrosis the mortality rate is high, ranging from 30% to 65%.1 Hence, one should suspect it and try to diagnose it early.

Most patients with this condition have comorbidities; risk factors include atherosclerotic disease, cardiac conditions (congestive heart failure, recent myocardial infarction, and atrial fibrillation), systemic illness, and inherited or acquired hypercoagulable states.2

The four major causes are:

  • Acute thromboembolic occlusion of the superior mesenteric artery (the most common site of occlusion because of the acute angle of origin from the aorta)
  • Acute thrombosis of the mesenteric vein
  • Acute thrombosis of the mesenteric artery
  • Nonocclusive disease affecting the mesenteric vessels2

Nonocclusive disease is seen in conditions in which the mesenteric vessels are already compromised due to background stenosis owing to atherosclerosis. Also, conditions such as septic and cardiogenic shock can compromise these arteries, leading to ischemia, which, if it persists, can lead to bowel infarction. Ischemic colitis falls under this category. It commonly involves the descending and sigmoid colon.3

The initial symptom of ischemia may be abdominal pain that is brought on by eating large meals (“postprandial intestinal angina.”2 When the ischemia worsens to infarction, patients may have a diffusely tender abdomen and constant pain that does not vary with palpation. Surprisingly, patients do not exhibit peritoneal signs early on. This gives rise to the description of “pain out of proportion to the physical findings” traditionally associated with acute mesenteric ischemia.2

Diagnosis. Supportive laboratory data include marked leukocytosis, elevated hematocrit due to hemoconcentration, metabolic acidosis, and elevated lactate.4 Newer markers such as serum alpha-glutathione S-transferase (alpha-GST) and intestinal fatty acid-binding protein (I-FABP) may be used to support the diagnosis.

Elevated alpha-GST has 72% sensitivity and 77% specificity in the diagnosis of acute mesenteric ischemia.5 The caveat is that it cannot reliably differentiate ischemia from infarction. Its sensitivity can be improved to 97% to 100% by using the white blood cell count and lactate levels in combination.5

An I-FABP level higher than 100 ng/mL has 100% sensitivity for diagnosing mesenteric infarction but only 25% sensitivity for bowel strangulation.6

Early use of abdominal computed tomography with contrast can aid in recognizing this diagnosis.7 Thus, it should be ordered in suspected cases, even in patients who have elevated creatinine levels (which would normally preclude the use of contrast), since early diagnosis followed by endovascular therapy is associated with survival benefit, and the risk of contrast-induced nephropathy appears to be small.8 Computed tomography helps to determine the state of mesenteric vessels and bowel perfusion before ischemia progresses to infarction. It also helps to rule out other common diagnoses. Findings that suggest acute mesenteric ischemia include segmental bowel wall thickening, intestinal pneumatosis with gas in the portal vein, bowel dilation, mesenteric stranding, portomesenteric thrombosis, and solid-organ infarction.9

Treatment. If superior mesenteric artery occlusion is diagnosed on computed tomography, the next step is to determine if there is peritonitis.10 In patients who have evidence of peritonitis, exploratory laparotomy is performed. For emboli in such patients, open embolectomy followed by on-table angiography is carried out in combination with damage-control surgery. For patients with peritonitis and acute thrombosis, stenting along with damage-control surgery is preferred.10

On the other hand, if there is no peritonitis, the thrombosis may be amenable to endovascular intervention. For patients with acute embolic occlusion with no contraindications to thrombolysis, aspiration embolectomy in combination with local catheter-directed thrombolysis with recombinant tissue plasminogen activator can be performed. This can be combined with endovascular mechanical embolectomy for more complete management.10 Patients with contraindications to thrombolysis can be treated either with aspiration and mechanical embolectomy or with open embolectomy with angiography.10

During laparotomy, the surgeon carefully inspects the bowel for signs of necrosis. Signs that bowel is still viable include pink color, bleeding from cut surfaces, good peristalsis, and visible pulsations in the arterial arcade of the mesentery.

On day 7 she developed acute decompensation—what was the cause?

Acute mesenteric artery thrombosis arising from chronic atherosclerotic disease can be treated with stenting of the stenotic lesion.10 Patients with this condition would also benefit from aggressive management of atherosclerotic disease with statins along with antiplatelet agents.10

Mesenteric vein thrombosis requires prompt institution of anticoagulation. However, in advanced cases leading to bowel infarction, exploratory laparotomy with resection of the necrotic bowel may be required. Anticoagulation should be continued for at least 6 months, and further therapy should be determined by the underlying precipitating condition.10

Critically ill patients who develop mesenteric ischemia secondary to persistent hypotension usually respond to adequate volume resuscitation, cessation of vasopressors, and overall improvement in their hemodynamic status. These patients must be closely monitored for development of gangrene of the bowel because they may be intubated and not able to complain. Any sudden deterioration in their condition should prompt physicians to consider bowel necrosis developing in these patients. Elevation of lactate levels out of proportion to the degree of hypotension may be corroborative evidence.4

Our patient had risk factors for acute mesenteric ischemia that included atrial fibrillation and recent non-ST-elevation myocardial infarction. She could have had arterial emboli due to atrial fibrillation, in situ superior mesenteric arterial thrombosis, or splanchnic arterial vasoconstriction due to the myocardial infarction associated with transient hypotension.

Arguing against this diagnosis, although she had a grossly distended abdomen, abdominal bruising usually is not seen. Also, a palpable mass in the right lower quadrant is uncommon except when acute mesenteric ischemia occurs due to segmental intestinal strangulation, as with strangulated hernia or volvulus. She also had therapeutic international normalized ratio (INR) levels constantly while on anticoagulation. Nevertheless, acute mesenteric ischemia should be strongly considered in the initial differential diagnosis of this patient’s acute decompensation.

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Diabetes therapy and cardiac risk

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