Gastrointestinal Complications in COVID-19: Unveiling the Mystery of Mesenteric Ischemia


The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed itself as a versatile and complex illness with a wide range of clinical manifestations. While respiratory symptoms have been the hallmark of the disease, researchers and healthcare professionals have uncovered a myriad of extrapulmonary complications, one of which is mesenteric ischemia, a condition affecting the blood supply to the intestines.

This article delves into the enigmatic world of gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms in COVID-19 patients, the intriguing link between the virus and mesenteric ischemia, and the unique challenges in its diagnosis and management.

GI Symptoms in COVID-19

Gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, anorexia, vomiting, and diarrhea have been increasingly recognized as common among COVID-19 patients. These symptoms are often unsettling and can add to the overall distress of the infected individuals.

The presence of viral shedding in stools has been well-established, and it is considered one of the factors contributing to these GI symptoms.

Beyond the intestines, the virus has also been found in other specimens, such as the gall bladder during cholecystectomy. This raises questions about the extent to which the virus can affect the GI tract. Studies have even shown acute replication of the virus within the GI tract, suggesting that the virus’s presence in this area may lead to a range of complications.

Liver enzyme abnormalities are frequently observed in COVID-19 patients, although they are usually mild. However, more severe complications involving the GI tract, such as acute cholecystitis, acute pancreatitis, ileus, pseudo-colonic obstruction, and mesenteric ischemia, are uncommon but have been reported with higher morbidity and mortality. Bowel necrosis, a particularly grave outcome, is associated with a staggering 50% mortality rate.

Mesenteric Ischemia: Unusual Presentations

Mesenteric ischemia is typically reported in critically ill patients, and its presentation can be quite unusual. Patients suffering from mesenteric ischemia may experience abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and per-rectal bleeding. Features of peritonism, including abdominal distension and tenderness, are also common signs.

Laboratory findings play a crucial role in diagnosing mesenteric ischemia. More than 90% of patients exhibit an elevated leukocyte count, while high lactate levels with acidosis were found in 88% of cases. Lactate levels exceeding 2mmol/l have been associated with intestinal ischemia and a poor prognosis. The presence of lactic acidosis in combination with abdominal pain, even when the patient may not appear clinically ill, should prompt healthcare providers to consider early computed tomography angiography (CTA).

D-dimer, a marker of fibrinolysis, has shown promise as an early assessment tool for mesenteric ischemia. A D-dimer level greater than 0.9 mg/L had a specificity, sensitivity, and accuracy of 82%, 60%, and 79%, respectively. While other markers such as elevated amylase, intestinal fatty acid binding protein (I-FABP), serum alpha-glutathione S-transferase (alpha–GST), and cobalt-albumin binding assay (CABA) have been suggested for initial diagnosis, further validation is needed.

CTA as the Gold Standard Diagnostic Tool

CTA is considered the gold standard test for identifying thrombus or embolus in the mesenteric arterial system. It boasts an impressive sensitivity of 93%, specificity of 100%, and positive and negative predictive values of 100% and 94%, respectively. When there is suspicion of proximal arterial thromboembolic disease, endovascular or open angiography and thrombectomy are required to provide definitive diagnosis and treatment.

Surgical Considerations

In cases where mesenteric ischemia is probable, operative intervention is often considered for bowel examination and resection. However, during these surgeries, clinicians may encounter unusual findings, such as patchy areas of well-demarcated yellow discoloration on the antimesenteric bowel wall. In some cases, multiple patches varying in size from 0.5-2 cm are observed. The terminal ileum is particularly susceptible to intestinal necrosis.

Interestingly, there are instances where the bowel appears plethoric rather than ischemic, making clinical judgment crucial. In such cases, leaving the abdomen temporarily open for a planned second-look laparotomy within 12 to 24 hours is recommended since ischemia can quickly evolve into transmural necrosis. Alternatively, a second-look laparoscopy, rather than laparotomy, may be considered as a novel option, depending on the specific case.

Pathological Examination and Uncertainties

The pathological examination of resected bowel segments from COVID-19 patients who developed mesenteric ischemia has revealed extensive mucosal ulceration, congestion, transmural inflammation, and transmural infarction. Fibrin microthrombi have also been occasionally observed in the capillaries underlying areas of necrosis, raising the possibility of thrombosis at the submucosal vessel level.

Despite these observations, the exact pathophysiology of bowel ischemia in COVID-19 patients remains uncertain. Mesenteric ischemia is traditionally associated with a mean arterial pressure less than 45mmHg, making it more common in critically ill patients. Factors such as high doses of vasopressors, hemodynamic instability, and metabolic derangements that compromise intestinal blood flow can lead to mesenteric ischemia. However, the unique features of mesenteric ischemia in COVID-19 patients, often occurring in the watershed areas, suggest alternative mechanisms specific to the virus.

Inflammatory Coagulopathy and Potential Therapeutic Strategies

Inflammatory coagulopathy, a phenomenon linked to COVID-19, has been associated with worse pulmonary disease, deep vein thrombosis, cerebrovascular accidents, and renal failure. The authors speculate that this mechanism may also contribute to the development of mesenteric ischemia. However, there is currently limited evidence to recommend empiric therapeutic anticoagulation for COVID-19 patients, though potential markers like D-dimer have shown promise but require further validation.

High Mortality Rate and Future Considerations

The mortality rate of COVID-19 patients who develop mesenteric ischemia is alarmingly high, reported to be as high as 40%. More than 92% of deaths occur within the immediate postoperative days, often due to multiorgan failure or refractory septic shock. These stark statistics highlight the severity of mesenteric ischemia in the context of COVID-19 and emphasize the need for further research and improved treatment strategies.


As we continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial to understand the diverse clinical manifestations and complications associated with the virus. Mesenteric ischemia, a rare but devastating complication, presents a unique set of challenges for healthcare providers. The link between COVID-19 and mesenteric ischemia remains enigmatic, with several potential mechanisms at play, including viral shedding, inflammatory coagulopathy, and hemodynamic instability.

Efforts are needed to validate diagnostic markers and establish effective treatment strategies for this severe complication. Collaboration on a global scale is essential for identifying and preventing severe morbid complications in COVID-19 patients, particularly among those who may initially present as asymptomatic. While the pathophysiology and management of mesenteric ischemia in COVID

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