Pneumatosis intestinalis is a condition in which gas is present in the mucous lining of the small or large intestine. The condition itself is not considered a disease, and many cases do not cause any symptoms or health problems. Pneumatosis intestinalis may, however, be indicative of a number of different gastrointestinal disorders or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Infants with the condition are likely to also experience necrotizing enterocolitis, or death of intestine tissue. Doctors usually try to identify and treat the underlying cause of the condition to prevent serious health issues.
A person who shows signs of the condition is likely to have an inflammatory gastrointestinal disorder or a pulmonary obstruction. Bacterial infections, Crohn's disease, and ulcerative colitis can all lead to inflammation, irritation, and gas buildup. In addition, blood flow to the bowels can be disrupted in a condition called ischemia. A lack of oxygenated blood causes hydrogen gas buildups in the intestinal walls and eventually results in necrosis of intestinal tissue. Patients with symptomatic pneumatosis intestinalis may experience diarrhea, chronic abdominal pain and swelling, constipation, and fatigue.
Treating the underlying cause, when one can be determined, is essential to prevent permanent and sometimes life-threatening complications. Many types of inflammatory bowel disease and pulmonary obstructions can be controlled with corticosteroids and antibiotics. Cases of bowel ischemia often necessitate surgical intervention to clear away damaged tissue and restore proper blood flow to the intestines. Regular checkups typically are important following treatment to ensure that gas buildup dissipates and the underlying cause is kept under control.
This disorder may not be discovered until a patient undergoes medical screening for a different problem. If a doctor notices gas buildup in the bowel walls, he or she can conduct further imaging scans, take blood samples, and remove a piece of intestinal tissue for laboratory testing. In cases where the condition is idiopathic and does not cause any adverse symptoms, patients do not normally need to receive treatment. Benign pneumatosis intestinalis tends to disappear over the course of weeks or months.
Most cases of intestinalis in infants are associated with necrosis of bowel tissue, in which the lining of the intestines dies and erodes. Necrotizing entercolitis is most common in premature newborns, and can causes bloody diarrhea, distension, and vomiting. The disease can be fatal if treatment is not immediate. An emergency surgeon may try to alleviate symptoms by removing dead tissue from the bowel and administering antibiotics. Gas and irritation typically are relieved when necrotizing entercolitis is effectively treated.