Your intestines need healthy blood flow to function

Each part of your body needs a steady supply of oxygen-rich blood in order to function properly, and that includes your intestines. Your arteries carry fresh blood from your heart and lungs to your intestines. This lets your intestines digest food, and it keeps your bowels moving.

If that blood flow is blocked or cut off for some reason, your intestines don’t have the oxygen they need to do their job. This can cause tissue in part of the intestine to die, leading to a condition called ischemic bowel disease (also known as intestinal ischemia or intestinal necrosis).

What happens when the circulation to your intestines gets blocked?

Ischemic bowel disease happens because the arteries that bring oxygen-rich blood to the intestines get blocked. Different things can block the arteries. Some common causes include:

  • Blood clots in the arteries
  • Clogged arteries (from having high cholesterol or peripheral artery disease)
  • Bowel obstruction (something is stuck in the intestines)
  • Scar tissue from surgery
  • Tumor in the intestines
  • Hernia

The symptoms of ischemic bowel disease can include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Blood in your bowel movements
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Bloating or swelling of the abdomen

Sometimes, ischemic bowel disease can cause an infection in the intestines. If there’s an infection, you may also have a fever and chills.

Diagnosing and treating ischemic bowel disease

To diagnose ischemic bowel disease, your doctor will do a physical exam to check your abdomen. You may also need the following tests to confirm the diagnosis:

  • Blood tests to check for infection
  • Imaging tests like an X-ray, CT scan or MRI to look for blockages in your arteries
  • Colonoscopy to check your lower intestine
  • Angiogram, which is a test that looks at the flow of blood to your intestines

Treatment for ischemic bowel disease depends on how severe it is and what’s blocking the artery. For less severe cases, you’ll need to rest and drink plenty of fluids. You may also need antibiotics.

You may need surgery to remove whatever is blocking your artery. For more severe cases where a larger part of the intestines has been damaged, you may need surgery to remove part of your intestine.

To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (1.866.225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.