Mesenteric ischemia pathophysiology

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]; Associate Editor(s)-in-Chief: Feham Tariq, MD [2]


The factors that regulate the intestinal blood flow play a vital role in the development of mesenteric ischemia. Mucosa of the intestines has a high metabolic activity and accordingly a high blood flow requirement. The majority of blood supply of the intestine comes from the superior mesenteric artery, with a collateral blood supply from superior and inferior pancreaticoduodenal arteries (branches of the celiac artery) as well as the inferior mesenteric artery. The splanchnic circulation (arteries supplying the viscera) receives 15-35% of the cardiac output, making it sensitive to the effects of decreased perfusion. Mesenteric ischemia occurs when intestinal blood supply is compromised by more than 50% of the original blood flow without activation of adaptive responses. This can lead to disruption of mucosal barrier, allowing the release of bacterial toxins (present in the intestinal lumen) and vasoactive mediators which ultimately lead to complete necrosis (cell death) of the intestinal mucosa. This can further progress to depression in myocardial activity, sepsis, multiorgan failure, and without prompt intervention, even death.



Factors contributing in the pathogenesis of mesenteric ischemia:[7][8]

  • Mesenteric blood supply (general circulation)

(A) Mesenteric blood supply (General circulation)

Arterial supply Region supplied
Superior mesenteric artery (SMA) Small intestine, proximal and mid colon up to the splenic flexure.
Inferior mesenteric artery (IMA) Hindgut starting from the splenic flexure to the rectum.
Celiac artery (CA) Foregut, hepatobiliary system and spleen.
Venous drainage
The venous system parallels the arterial branches and drains into the portal venous system.
Blood supply to the intestines includes the celiac artery, superior mesenteric artery (SMA), inferior mesenteric artery (IMA), and branches of the internal iliac artery (IIA).
Source: By Anpol42 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Commonly affected arteries:[11]

(B) Collateral circulation

The role of collateral circulation in the development of mesenteric ischemia is as follows:[12][13][14][15][16]

(C) Response of mesenteric vasculature to ischemia

The sequence of events that take place in the small intestine subsequent to decreased blood flow:

Ischemic insult
Decreased delivery of oxygen and nutrients
Disruption in cellular metabolism
Tissue injury due to hypoxia and reperfusion
Full thickness necrosis of the bowel
Perforation of the bowel wall

Post ischemic cellular changes:
Time duration since ischemia Pathological changes in the small intestine
3-4 hours Necrosis of the mucosal villi
6 hours Transmural, mural or mucosal infarction
1-4 days Bowel hemorrhage

Reperfusion injury:

(D) Vasoactive and humoral factors regulating the mesenteric blood flow

Intrinsic regulation:

(a) Metabolic factors:

(b) Myogenic factors:

Extrinsic regulation:

(a) Neural component:

(b) Humoral component:

Factors regulating mesenteric blood flow
Extrinsic reguatory system
Humoral (endogenous and exogenous) Neural component
Decrease blood flow Increase blood flow Decrease blood flow Increase blood flow
Intrinsic regulatory component
Decrease blood flow (Myogenic factors) Increase blood flow (Metabolic factors)
  • Arteriolar tension receptors

Areas prone to ischemia

Areas prone to ischemia Blood supply
Splenic flexure End arteries of superior mesenteric artery
Rectosigmoid junction End arteries of inferior mesenteric artery
Middle segment of jejunum

Watershed areas lacking collateralization:

  • Splenic flexure
    • Supplied by the end arteries of SMA with no collateral circulation.
  • Rectosigmoid junction
    • Supplied by the end arteries of IMA with no collateral circulation.
  • Middle segment of jejunum[25]
    • This area is the farthest from collateral circulation and hence prone to ischemia as compared to other segments of jejunum.

Pathogenesis of occlusive mesenteric ischemia:

Vascular occlusion
Blood flow<metabolic demand
Mucosal barrier disruption and bacterial translocation into the circulation
Anaerobic glycolysis in mucosa and lactate production
Activation of vascular and humoral factors leading to vasoconstriction
Systemic activation of inflammatory response
Lactic acidosis
Intestinal necrosis
Multiorgan failure

Pathogenesis of non-occlusive mesenteric ischemia:

Cardiac failure
Endogenous vasoconstriction
Splanchnic vasoconstriction
Gut mucosal hypoperfusion
Restoration of blood by vasodilation of collaterals
Gut mucosal barrier disruption
Ischemia-reperfusion injury
Increased mucosal perfusion to bacterial toxins
Activation of inflammatory response

Gross Pathology

Gross pathology shows following changes:

Microscopic pathology

Mesenteric ischemia is classified histopathologically into five grades:[26]

  • Grade 2. Villous architecture is preserved, with some mucosal congestion and dilated capillaries
  • Grade 3. There is congestion of mucosa with loss of superficial glandular architecture, but deep villous architecture is preserved.
  • Grade 4. Muscular layer is preserved, but the mucosa is completely involved, with loss of all superficial and deep glandular architecture. 
  • Grade 5. There is total loss of glandular architecture, and the muscularis propria shows degeneration, fragmentation, and myocyte death, all of which indicate transmural infarction.


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