Medicolegal Issues

Malpractice Counsel: Constipation, missing diabetes

Commentaries on cases involving a 26-year-old woman with a history of chronic constipation and a 27-year-old man with a 3-day history of severe abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting.

Commentaries on cases involving a 26-year-old woman with a history of chronic constipation and a 27-year-old man with a 3-day history of severe abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting.




A 26-year-old woman presented to the ED with a chief complaint of chronic constipation. This was the patient’s fourth ED visit for the same complaint over the previous 12 days. The patient stated that, at the prior visits, she was prescribed stool softeners and instructed to increase the amount of green vegetables in her diet and to drink plenty of fluids. She further noted that although constipation had been a long-standing problem for her, the condition had become worse over the past several weeks.

The patient described some lower abdominal discomfort, but denied nausea, vomiting, fevers, or chills. She also denied any genitourinary complaints or flank pain. Her last menstrual period was 2 weeks prior and normal. Her medical history was unremarkable; she denied smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol and had no known drug allergies.

On physical examination, the patient’s vital signs were normal and she did not appear to be in any distress. The lung and heart examinations were also normal. Her abdomen was found to be soft, with slight tenderness in the lower abdomen, but with no guarding, rebound, or distention. Bowel sounds were present and hypoactive. A rectal examination revealed minimal stool in the vault, which was heme negative.

Since previous outpatient therapies failed to resolve the constipation, the emergency physician (EP) ordered a soapsuds enema for this patient. Approximately 30 minutes after administration of the enema, the patient began to complain of severe abdominal pain, and her heart rate increased to 120 beats/minute. Repeat abdominal examination revealed a very tender abdomen. A STAT computed tomography (CT) scan of the abdomen and pelvis with intravenous (IV) contrast was ordered, which demonstrated a sigmoid volvulus with perforation. The patient was immediately taken to the operating room, and a colostomy was performed. She had a complicated postoperative course, which necessitated a second surgery and treatment for a wound infection. The patient eventually recovered and was discharged home with an ileostomy.

The patient sued the EP and the hospital, stating that the enema was not only contraindicated, but also caused the colon perforation. She further alleged that the EP failed to properly diagnose the sigmoid volvulus. The defense argued that the patient suffered from an uncommon condition, and the treatment provided was appropriate given her symptoms. The defense further stated that the perforation was present prior to the administration of the enema. At trial, a defense verdict was returned.


Sigmoid volvulus is a relatively rare cause of bowel obstruction, accounting for only 2% of intestinal obstructions in the United States between 2002 and 2010.1 The majority of cases occur in older patients (mean age, 70 years).1 Risk factors for development include a history of laxative abuse, chronic constipation, and institutionalized patients with underlying neurological or psychiatric disease. There also appears to be an increased incidence during pregnancy. When observed in the pediatric population and in young adults, sigmoid volvulus is frequently due to an underlying colonic motility disorder.

A volvulus occurs when the colon twists on its mesenteric axis with greater than 180° rotation, resulting in obstruction of the intestinal lumen and mesenteric vessels.2 The most common locations for volvulus are the sigmoid colon, followed by the cecum. Though rare, the condition can occur in other locations.

The patient in this case presented very atypically for someone with a sigmoid volvulus as the majority of patients present with progressive abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and constipation. On physical examination, the abdomen is frequently distended and tympanitic with diffuse tenderness. If perforation has occurred, then peritoneal signs predominate (eg, guarding, rigidity, rebound tenderness) and abnormal vital signs (eg, fever, tachycardia, hypotension) are frequently present.

While a diagnosis of sigmoid volvulus may be suspected through the history and physical examination, it is confirmed through imaging studies, with abdominal/pelvic CT being the modality of choice. On CT scan, the “whirl sign” is frequently present, representing the dilated sigmoid colon twisted around its mesocolon and vessels.3 The tightness of the whirl is proportional to the degree of torsion. If rectal contrast is administered, the “bird-beak” sign is often present, representing the afferent and efferent colonic segments.3

As with this patient, if the colon has been perforated, IV fluid resuscitation, IV antibiotics, and immediate surgery are indicated. In cases in which there is no evidence of gangrene or perforation, sigmoidoscopy can be attempted to detorse the twisted bowel segment. This technique is successful in correcting torsion in the majority of cases. However, if detorsion attempts fail, emergent surgery is indicated.

Even when nonsurgical detorsion is successful, controversy exists over its use as the sole treatment for sigmoid volvulus. Due to a 50% to 60% chance of recurrent sigmoid volvulus, some experts recommend surgery immediately following detorsion, while others advise a wait-and-see approach.


Next Article: