Ischemic colitis

Ischemic colitis occurs when blood flow to part of the large intestine (colon) is reduced due to narrowed or blocked blood vessels (arteries). The diminished blood flow provides insufficient oxygen for the cells in your digestive system. It can cause pain and can damage your colon. Ischemic colitis can affect any part of the colon, but most people experience pain on the left side of the belly area (abdomen).

Ischemic colitis is most common among people older than age 60. It can be misdiagnosed because it can easily be confused with other digestive problems. Ischemic colitis may heal on its own. But you may need medication to treat or prevent infection, or surgery if your colon has been damaged.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications Prevention

Signs and symptoms of ischemic colitis can include:

  • Pain, tenderness or cramping in your belly, which can occur suddenly or gradually
  • Bright red or maroon-colored blood in your stool or, at times, passage of blood alone without stool
  • A feeling of urgency to move your bowels
  • Diarrhea

The risk of severe complications is higher when you have symptoms on the right side of your abdomen. That's because the arteries that feed the right side of your colon also feed part of your small intestine. When blood flow is blocked on the right side of your colon, it's likely that flow is blocked to part of your small intestine as well. Pain tends to be more severe with this type of ischemic colitis.

Blocked blood flow to the small intestine can quickly lead to death of intestinal tissue (necrosis). If this life-threatening situation occurs, you'll need surgery to clear the blockage and to remove the portion of the intestine that has been damaged.

When to see a doctor

Seek immediate medical care if you have sudden, severe abdominal pain. Abdominal pain that makes you so uncomfortable that you can't sit still or find a comfortable position is a medical emergency.

Contact your doctor if you develop worrisome signs and symptoms, such as bloody diarrhea. Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent serious complications.

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