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What Is Bowel Ischemia?

By J.M. Willhite
Updated May 17, 2024
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Bowel ischemia is a potentially life-threatening condition defined by compromised intestinal blood flow. Impaired bowel function triggered by ischemia can cause significant discomfort and place an individual at risk for permanent intestinal stenosis and necrosis, or tissue death. Treatment for bowel ischemia, also known as intestinal ischemia, is dependent on the location and severity of the obstruction and may range from administering medication to arterial bypass surgery.

Generally, bowel ischemia may be detected with the use of endoscopic and imaging technology. Introduced through the rectum, an endoscope is frequently used to evaluate colonic tissue. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other imaging tests may be conducted to assess the condition of the lower bowel. In some cases, an angiogram may also be performed to more closely examine arterial health within the intestines.

Individuals with certain medical conditions, such as atherosclerosis, are considered at significant risk for developing bowel ischemia. Regular use of medications that can adversely affect arterial function may also place unnecessary stress on the lower digestive tract contributing to the start of symptoms. Additional factors that may impair intestinal blood circulation contributing to bowel ischemia can include systemic hypertension and arrhythmias.

Although many factors may contribute to an intestinal ischemia, most are triggered by plaque-related arterial constriction or a blockage. Decreased blood flow deprives tissues of vital nutrients and oxygen, which ultimately compromises function. When intestinal blood flow diminishes, bowel function slows, leaving the affected tissues susceptible to infection, extensive scarring, and necrosis. Symptoms generally depend on the cause, severity, and location of the ischemia.

Chronic bowel ischemia is a progressive condition that often triggers significant bloating, diarrhea, and weight loss. Symptoms generally flare during digestion, which often forces the individual to adjust his or her diet, including how much he or she consumes at each meal. Individuals with acute bowel ischemia experience abdominal discomfort that may or may not accompany a change in bowel movements. Blood-tinged stool and an increase in the frequency and urgency of one’s bowel movements are not uncommon with bowel ischemia. Regardless if the ischemia is acute or chronic, additional symptoms may include nausea, fever, and vomiting.

Centered on restoring proper blood flow and intestinal function, medication is frequently used to eliminate infection and ease arterial constriction. Alleviating underlying conditions or discontinuing the use of certain medications that are triggering symptoms can ease one’s condition without surgery. Blockages, such as blood clots, may be surgically removed to restore blood flow. Extensive arterial narrowing can require an arterial bypass or the placement of a surgical stent to promote normal bowel functions. Intestinal tissue that has sustained irreparable damage may be excised to prevent infection and necrosis.

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