What is bowel ischaemia?

Bowel ischaemia occurs when blood flow to the bowel is blocked. It is known as mesenteric ischaemia when affecting the small intestine, and ischaemic colitis when affecting the large intestine.

Bowel ischaemia causes around 3,000 deaths in the UK each year.


There are two main types of bowel ischaemia: chronic and acute.

Chronic ischaemia happens when the arteries supplying the bowel become narrowed by disease – so called ‘hardening of the arteries’ or atherosclerosis. This can cause pain after eating, in a similar way to cardiac angina causing chest pain during exercise, and weight loss as patients avoid eating due to the pain.  Chronic ischaemia may be difficult to spot; it is uncommon, and many of the symptoms are also caused by other, less serious, conditions.

Acute mesenteric ischaemia happens when the blood supply to the bowel is suddenly obstructed entirely. Patients become seriously ill very quickly so that by the time they arrive at hospital, it is often too late for effective treatment, and the likelihood of survival is low. Diagnosis is also difficult, as no simple bedside test for bowel ischaemia currently exists.

Chronic ischaemia can of course develop into the acute form, much in the same was as narrowed coronary arteries can lead to a heart attack.


Chronic ischaemia may be treated with antibiotics or medication to prevent/treat clotting. Acute ischaemia requries surgical treatment.


We asked Matt Lee, Clinical Research Fellow in General Surgery at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, about how tough mesenteric ischaemia is to treat, and the need for more research:

“Acute mesenteric ischaemia presents many challenges for clinicians and patients. Doctors must have a high index of suspicion for this condition in order to do the right tests and take the right decisions to allow timely treatment. The biggest challenge is diagnosis as we don’t have a bedside test specifically for this condition. With a test like this we could intervene early and potentially make a massive difference to patients. I think this is an area where we should look to fund research.”

At Bowel Research UK, funding more research to help treat bowel problems of all kinds is exactly what we do.

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