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Clinical case: Large bowel obstruction as a delayed complication of pancreatitis

In this article, we describe a case of a woman who presented to the ER with abdominal distention, constipation, epigastric tenderness, and absent bowel sounds. Her diagnosis was a bowel obstruction which developed as a complication of a previous episode of pancreatitis. We will follow her journey from admission and history all the way to prognosis and evolution. We will also look at the mechanism of bowel obstructions following pancreatitis, together with possible management options and relevant anatomical considerations.

Key facts
Cholelithiasis & Pancreatitis Blockage of the Ampulla of Vater (combined terminal pathways from the liver bile and pancreatic enzymes) results in liver and pancreas dysfunction (pancreatitis)
Mechanism of Colonic Strictures Pancreatitis can lead to colonic strictures via the spread of pancreatic enzymes and inflammatory mediators into the mesocolon and mesentery via the peritoneal reflections, or ischemia of the splenic flexure (watershed region)
Absent Bowel Sounds Bowel sounds represent peristaltic waves, hence their absence indicates paralysis (ileus).
Radiological Features of Bowel Strictures Bowel segments proximal to the obstruction swell with gas, fluid or intestinal contents, appearing dilated. Segments distal to the obstruction become constricted because no contents can flow past the obstruction.
Air-Filled Fluid Levels In Radiology Abnormal presence of fluid

After reviewing this case you should be able to describe the following:

  • The relationship between gallstone disease (cholelithiasis) and pancreatitis.
  • The possible anatomic/pathologic mechanisms to explain the development of a colonic stricture from pancreatitis, and suggest why this is likely to occur at the splenic flexure.
  • Why the patient did not have bowel sounds.
  • The physiological basis for why there were dilated bowel loops proximal to the splenic flexure in this patient.
  • What is an air-fluid level in a radiologic image, why does it occur and why it can be radiologically significant.
  • Explain why anatomical identification and radiological diagnosis from cross-sectional images typically require a series of images rather than a single image.

This article is based on a case report published in the Journal "Case Reports in Surgery" in 2015, by Caroline C. Jadlowiec, Beata E. Lobel, Namita Akolkar, Michael D. Bourque, Thomas J. Devers, and David W. McFadden.

It has been modified and reviewed by Joel A. Vilensky PhD, Carlos A. Suárez-Quian PhD, Aykut Üren, MD.

  1. Case description
    1. History and physical Exam
    2. Imaging
    3. Management and evolution
    4. Histological Examination and final diagnosis
  2. Anatomical considerations
  3. Explanations to objectives
    1. Objectives
    2. Relationship between cholelithiasis and pancreatitis
    3. Mechanism of colonic structures following pancreatitis
    4. Absence of bowel sounds in bowel obstruction
    5. Basis of dilated bowel loops proximal to the splenic flexure
    6. Air-filled fluid levels in radiological images
    7. Multi-layered cross-sectional images
  4. Sources
+ Show all

Case description

History and physical Exam

A 31-year-old woman presented to the ER with a brief history of abdominal distention and constipation. She had previously been hospitalized for pancreatitis resulting from blockage of the hepatopancreatic ampulla (Ampulla of Vater) by a gallstone. A CT scan at the time of the first admission showed an inflamed pancreas and dilated bowel proximal to the splenic flexure. A radiographic study at the time showed a possible stricture at the splenic flexure. At that admission, she responded well to non-surgical treatment and was released from the hospital. On subsequent readmission, her abdomen was distended, there was epigastric tenderness and there was an absence of bowel sounds.


A radiograph confirmed a bowel obstruction at the splenic flexure (Figures 1; note that this radiograph is not presented in standard orientation because it was not presented as such in the original report; in standard orientation a radiograph is presented as if you were looking at the front of the patient; the student should thus be prepared for non-standard presentations in some reports).

Figure 1. AP abdominal radiograph after injection of barium into the rectum. Note that the barium is not apparent beyond the splenic flexure. (This presentation is as in the original case report. IT IS NOT A STANDARD PRESENTATION in that it is not presented as if the observer is looking at the front of the patient, but rather as if the observer is looking at the patient’s back; see text).

The published case report stated that CT imaging demonstrated pancreatitis and dilated bowel segments and referred to Figure 2 (the student should realize that this single CT image, by itself, is not sufficient for a definitive diagnosis of pancreatitis and dilated bowel segments – from this image alone it is not possible anatomically to know that whether the distended tubular structures are bowel segments or parts of the stomach; however, the whole series of abdominal CT slices likely provided a sound basis for diagnosis of both of these conditions).

Figure 2. Axial CT showing possible pancreatitis and air-fluid levels which could be in the stomach or distended large bowel segments (see text).

Management and evolution

At laparotomy (surgical opening of the abdomen to explore for pathology), a large intestinal obstruction was identified at the splenic flexure resulting from a densely adherent inflammatory peri-pancreatic mass. A segmental colonic resection was done as well as a retrograde cholecystectomy (surgical removal of the gallbladder). Complications required a re-laparotomy, which was followed by a slow recovery in the patient.

Histological Examination and final diagnosis

Histologic examination of the obstruction revealed pericolonic lymphocytic and inflammatory tissue with areas of fibrosis around distinct areas of pancreatic fat necrosis, which compressed and occluded the colonic wall (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Histologic section of obstruction showing pericolonic scarring and inflammatory changes around pancreatic fat necrotic foci.

Anatomical considerations

Colonic complications from pancreatitis are rare but include bowel obstruction, ileus (absence of, or, slowing in bowel peristalsis), bowel necrosis, fistulae, obstruction and perforation; the close anatomical relationships between the pancreas and the bowel account for these potential complications. 

Figure 4. Hepatopancreatic ampulla (of Vater) (ventral view)

Clinical case: Large bowel obstruction as a delayed complication of pancreatitis: want to learn more about it?

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