Question Of The Day #31

question of the day
CT bowel wall thickness - m

Which of the following is the most likely diagnosis causing this patient’s symptoms?

This elderly female patient presents to the emergency department with acute onset of severe abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. Compared to younger patients, abdominal pain in an elderly patient has a higher likelihood of being due to a surgical emergency or from a diagnosis that carries a higher mortality. Elderly patients may have more nonspecific associated symptoms that may make it difficult to confirm a dangerous diagnosis without advanced imaging.  Additionally, elderly patients do not always have a fever or elevated white blood cells during an abdominal infection.  The differential diagnosis of abdominal pain in an elderly patient should be broad and encompass conditions related to many body systems.

The patient in this question has pain that is reported as being significantly high in relation to the minimal amount of abdominal tenderness provoked by the physical exam. This finding, known as “pain out of proportion” should raise concern for an ischemic etiology of the patient’s pain.  Ruptured appendicitis (Choice A) is less likely as the patient lacks clinical signs of peritonitis (i.e. diffuse tenderness with guarding, fever, hypotension, signs of shock).  Appendicitis, although not impossible in an elderly individual, is a diagnosis that occurs more often in younger patients. Ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm (Choice B) typically results in death rapidly from hemorrhagic shock. This patient lacks signs of shock (hypotension, tachycardia, altered mental status), and her aorta on CT scan is not enlarged or aneurysmal (see image below).  Ureterolithiasis (Choice D), or a stone in the ureter, typically manifests as unilateral intermittent flank pain with hematuria. The question stem does not report a history of prior stones, and a first-time stone at an elderly age is not likely. 

Given the patent’s advanced age, her “pain out of proportion”, acute onset, risk factors for thromboembolic disease (Atrial fibrillation), the most likely diagnosis is acute mesenteric ischemia (Choice C). X-ray imaging can be used prior to CT angiogram imaging, but CT imaging is more specific and sensitive in making the diagnosis.  X-ray imaging may show bowel dilation, ileus, or pneumatosis intestinalis (air in bowel wall) in severe cases.  Lactate and D-Dimer testing can be used in the evaluation of these patients, but neither test is specific for mesenteric ischemia and reliable enough to rule out the disease. CT angiogram imaging of the abdomen and pelvis is the gold-standard diagnostic test for mesenteric ischemia.  Early CT findings include bowel wall thickening (seen on this patient’s imaging), dilated bowel, mesenteric edema, or ascites. Late CT findings include pneumoperitoneum, portal venous gas, and pneumatosis intestinalis.  Treatment of acute mesenteric ischemia is fluid resuscitation, broad spectrum antibiotics, surgical consultation, and consideration for anticoagulation.


Cite this article as: Joseph Ciano, USA, "Question Of The Day #31," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, March 19, 2021,, date accessed: June 1, 2023

Selected Gastrointestinal Emergencies

Gastrointestinal Emergencies selected from SAEM and IFEM undergraduate curriculum recommendations are uploaded into the website. You can read, listen or download all these chapters freely. More specific disease entities are on the way.

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Acute Mesenteric Ischemia

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Perforated Viscus

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Do you need more?

Elderly With Abdominal Pain!

Acute Mesenteric Ischemia

Rabind Antony Charles, Singapore

A 75-year-old woman presents to your Emergency Department (ED) with diffuse abdominal pain for the past day, associated with diarrhea and vomiting. She says the pain is increasingly worse and has failed to respond to paracetamol and charcoal tablets. She has a history of hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and atrial fibrillation. She has no history of laparotomy. She is alert and oriented. However, she is in distress because of her abdominal pain. The pain score is 9 out of 10. Blood pressure: 96 over 56 mmHg, pulse rate: 125 (irregularly, irregular), respiratory rate 20, pulse oximetry: 98% on room air, tympanic temperature: 37.5 degrees Celsius. Heart sounds: (irregular) S1S2 positive. Lungs sounds are bilateral equal and clear. Abdominal exam reveals diffuse tenderness; it is worse in periumbilical region, no guarding, bowel sounds are sluggish. No scars or hernias noted. Per rectal exam: brown stool. ECG is given on the side.

Rabind Antony Charles

What is the mortality risk?

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rates can be between 60-80% especially in patients with greater than a 24-hour delay in diagnosis or presentation