Bowel Trauma Imaging

Bowel Trauma Imaging

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For centuries, bowel trauma had a high mortality rate, and survivors escaped death by withstanding hemorrhage and sepsis. With the introduction of radiography, diagnostic accuracy improved. Multi-row helical detector CT scans are capable of scanning the abdomen in less than 30 seconds and can detect free air, free fluid, abnormal bowel wall enhancement, bowel wall thickening, and mesenteric infiltration. These advances in CT have brought the debate of conservative management of abdominal trauma full circle. Currently, many patients with blunt abdominal trauma or retroperitoneal penetrating trauma can be managed without surgery and can avoid unnecessary laparotomy. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]

See the related images below.

Multidetector CT scanning using 16- and 64-slice CT has increased the speed in which trauma patients are scanned. In addition, 16- and 64-slice multidetector CT imaging allows the creation of isotropic voxels that allow reformats to be performed in sagittal and coronal planes, which can allow better localization of bowel injuries.

CT of the abdomen is the preferred diagnostic examination for the evaluation of blunt abdominal trauma in the hemodynamically stable patient with blunt abdominal trauma and in selected instances of penetrating trauma to the posterior abdomen. Unstable patients or patients with penetrating injuries to the abdomen undergo exploratory laparotomy. [8, 1, 2, 9, 10]

Abdominal CT examination should be systematic. Traumatic injury to the bowel is rarely isolated. First, evaluate the more commonly injured organs, such as the liver and spleen, as well as the pancreas, adrenals, kidneys, blood vessels, spine, and skeletal structures.

Evaluate traumatic injury to the bowel in the context of the mechanism and location of injury, as follows:

Right upper quadrant: examine the right lung base, right hemi-diaphragm, liver, gallbladder, right colon, right adrenal, right kidney, and right abdominal small bowel loops

Midline: evaluate the base of the heart, diaphragm, pancreas, duodenum, aorta, inferior vena cava, and small bowel mesentery

Left upper quadrant: evaluate the base of the heart, base of the left lung, left hemi-diaphragm, stomach, spleen, tail of the pancreas, left adrenal, left kidney, left colon, and small bowel loops

Lower abdomen and/or pelvis: evaluate the bladder, rectosigmoid, and small bowel loops.

Each imaging modality (eg, plain abdominal radiograph, US, CT) demonstrates typical findings that suggest a diagnosis of bowel trauma. [11] In the hemodynamically stable patient with abdominal trauma, CT is the study of choice.

The accuracy of CT for the evaluation of bowel injury is as high as 97.6%.

CT can be limited if diagnostic peritoneal lavage (DPL) is performed prior to the CT. Free intraperitoneal fluid and air from the DPL observed on CT makes the evaluation for bowel injury very difficult.

Although CT can suggest bowel injury by demonstrating free intraperitoneal air, free fluid, or thickened bowel wall, in many instances it cannot reliably localize the exact location of bowel injury.

Delayed presentation of bowel injury occasionally occurs. Patients returning with continued symptoms several hours or days after a negative trauma should undergo repeat CT. [12]

Plain radiography findings in bowel injury include the following [13] :

Nonspecific findings may include small and/or large bowel dilation suggestive of ileus or obstruction secondary to peritonitis

Soft tissue density and/or mass effect on bowel gas loops suggest fluid collections, hematoma, or scoliosis resulting from splinting toward the side of injury

Loss of right psoas shadow suggests a retroperitoneal fluid collection from a duodenal injury

Free intraperitoneal air suggests bowel perforation

Upright abdominal films and left lateral decubitus films can detect as little as 1 mL or 2 mL of free intraperitoneal air under the diaphragm or over the liver edge, respectively

On supine abdominal radiographs, free air can be observed outlining the serosa of the bowel loops (“Rigler” or serosa sign) or the falciform ligament

Retroperitoneal air from duodenal or sigmoid injury can outline the diaphragmatic crura or the kidneys

GI studies using contrast can identify areas of extravasation from perforated bowel. GI studies also can help identify a duodenal hematoma

Plain radiographs are not highly specific or sensitive for evaluating bowel injury. Findings of free air, abdominal fluid, scoliosis, and psoas shadow obliteration are observed in fewer than 43% of patients with intestinal trauma. Fluid collections must be large (>800 mL) to be visible on plain radiographs.

Pneumoperitoneum does not always indicate bowel rupture and can be observed in patients with pneumomediastinum or pneumothorax and in patients on mechanical ventilation.

CT is the modality of choice for evaluating abdominal trauma in the hemodynamically stable patient (see the images below). [14, 15, 16, 3, 17, 4, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23] CT evaluation for blunt abdominal trauma can be difficult and requires strict attention to meticulous techniques.

Administer oral and intravenous contrast. Extend sections from the base of the lungs to below the symphysis pubis. View these sections in the “abdominal, lung, liver” and “bone” windows. Carefully search for associated injuries, including Chance or vertebral burst fractures; abdominal bruising; and pancreatic, liver, spleen, adrenal, and kidney injury. Consider administering rectal contrast in patients with suggested penetrating injury to the rectum or retroperitoneal colon.

Multidetector CT scanning using a 16- or 64-slice CT allows for coronal and sagittal reformats. Examination of these off-axis images allows for improved detection and localization of bowel injuries. [22, 5, 6, 7]

The coronal plane is especially helpful because it provides an anatomic view and helps referring physicians/surgeons better understand the location and extent of injury.

The sagittal plane is helpful in the evaluation of the thoracic and lumbar spine and can detect associated compression fractures of the spine, which may be missed when viewed in the axial plane alone.

CT findings in bowel injury include the following (also see Table 1, below):

Bowel injury is suggested by free intraperitoneal air, free intraperitoneal or retroperitoneal fluid, focal areas of bowel wall thickening, abnormal bowel wall enhancement, bowel wall hematoma (ie, duodenal hematoma), and intramural air.

The most specific finding is the visualization of oral contrast extravasation and bowel wall disruption.

A pattern of more diffuse bowel wall thickening, abnormal enhancement, and mesenteric infiltration can suggest mesenteric vascular injury resulting in ischemic bowel.

In intestinal vascular injury, evaluate the celiac axis, superior mesenteric artery, and superior mesenteric vein. A mesenteric hematoma or a focal area of higher density clotted blood (ie, “sentinel clot”) can suggest vascular injury.

Focal contrast extravasation can indicate active hemorrhage.

Table 1. CT Findings in Bowel Injury (Open Table in a new window)

Abdominal CT

Direct Findings

Indirect Findings

Bowel injury

Bowel wall disruption and oral contrast extravasation

Free intraperitoneal/retroperitoneal air, free intraperitoneal/retroperitoneal fluid

Focal areas of bowel wall thickening, abnormal bowel wall enhancement

Mesenteric vascular injury

Intravenous contrast extravasation from the area of the mesentery

Diffuse bowel wall thickening, diffuse bowel wall enhancement, mesenteric infiltration/mesenteric hematoma


The accuracy of CT for evaluating bowel injury is 82%, with a sensitivity of 64% and a specificity of 97%.

Some findings on CT suggesting bowel injury can represent false-positive findings, such as the following:

Free intraperitoneal air in a trauma patient also can be observed in a patient with pneumomediastinum, pneumothorax, recent DPL, laparotomy, or barotrauma with no associated bowel injury

Free fluid in a trauma patient can originate from injury to other organs, including the liver, spleen, gallbladder, and urinary bladder, without any injury to the bowel

Bowel wall thickening and abnormal wall enhancement also can be observed in patients with hypotension or hypoperfusion without direct bowel injury

Typically, the role of US in evaluating bowel trauma is limited to detecting free intraperitoneal fluid in trauma patients who are not sufficiently hemodynamically stable to undergo CT. However, the identified fluid cannot be further defined. Considerations include benign ascites, blood, urine, or bile and must be confirmed with CT. [24, 11]

Other findings of bowel injury include dilated bowel loops secondary to an ileus or obstruction. US is insensitive in detecting intraperitoneal free air.

The only role of angiography in acute bowel trauma is to identify the site of visceral bleeding. [25]

Faget C, Taourel P, Charbit J, Ruyer A, Alili C, Molinari N, et al. Value of CT to predict surgically important bowel and/or mesenteric injury in blunt trauma: performance of a preliminary scoring system. Eur Radiol. 2015 Dec. 25 (12):3620-8. [Medline].

Chereau N, Wagner M, Tresallet C, Lucidarme O, Raux M, Menegaux F. CT scan and Diagnostic Peritoneal Lavage: towards a better diagnosis in the area of nonoperative management of blunt abdominal trauma. Injury. 2016 Apr 24. [Medline].

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Landry BA, Patlas MN, Faidi S, Coates A, Nicolaou S. Are We Missing Traumatic Bowel and Mesenteric Injuries?. Can Assoc Radiol J. 2016 Jun 4. [Medline].

Miele V, Piccolo CL, Trinci M, Galluzzo M, Ianniello S, Brunese L. Diagnostic imaging of blunt abdominal trauma in pediatric patients. Radiol Med. 2016 May. 121 (5):409-30. [Medline].

LeBedis CA, Anderson SW, Bates DD, Khalil R, Matherly D, Wing H, et al. CT imaging signs of surgically proven bowel trauma. Emerg Radiol. 2016 Jun. 23 (3):213-9. [Medline].

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Abdominal CT

Direct Findings

Indirect Findings

Bowel injury

Bowel wall disruption and oral contrast extravasation

Free intraperitoneal/retroperitoneal air, free intraperitoneal/retroperitoneal fluid

Focal areas of bowel wall thickening, abnormal bowel wall enhancement

Mesenteric vascular injury

Intravenous contrast extravasation from the area of the mesentery

Diffuse bowel wall thickening, diffuse bowel wall enhancement, mesenteric infiltration/mesenteric hematoma

Raul N Uppot, MD Assistant Professor of Radiology, Harvard Medical School; Director, Abdominal Imaging Fellowship, Assistant Interventional Radiologist, Department of Radiology, Section of Abdominal Imaging and Interventional Radiology, Massachusetts General Hospital

Raul N Uppot, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Radiological Society of North America

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

John S Wills, MD Associate Professor of Radiology, Thomas Jefferson University; Chair, Department of Radiology, Pennsylvania Hospital

John S Wills, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Radiology, American Medical Association, Medical Society of Delaware, Radiological Society of North America

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Vinay K Gheyi, MD, MBBS Radiologist, Christiana Care Health System

Vinay K Gheyi, MD, MBBS is a member of the following medical societies: Radiological Society of North America

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Bernard D Coombs, MB, ChB, PhD Consulting Staff, Department of Specialist Rehabilitation Services, Hutt Valley District Health Board, New Zealand

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Spencer B Gay, MD Professor of Radiology, Department of Radiology and Medical Imaging, University of Virginia School of Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Eugene C Lin, MD Attending Radiologist, Teaching Coordinator for Cardiac Imaging, Radiology Residency Program, Virginia Mason Medical Center; Clinical Assistant Professor of Radiology, University of Washington School of Medicine

Eugene C Lin, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Nuclear Medicine, American College of Radiology, Radiological Society of North America, Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Neela Lamki, MD, FACR, FRCPC Professor, Department of Radiology, Sultan Qaboos University, Oman; Adjunct Professor, Department of Radiology, Baylor College of Medicine

Neela Lamki, MD, FACR, FRCPC is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Radiology, American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine, American Roentgen Ray Society, Association of University Radiologists, Radiological Society of North America, Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, Texas Medical Association, Texas Radiological Society, Society of Abdominal Radiology, Association of Program Directors in Interventional Radiology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Bowel Trauma Imaging

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