The relevance of free fluid between intestinal loops detected by sonography in the clinical assessment of small bowel obstruction in adults

Roberto Grassi, Stefania Romano, Fenesia D'Amario, Antonio Giorgio Rossi, Luigia Romano, Fabio Pinto, Roberto Di Mizio
European Journal of Radiology 2004, 50 (1): 5-14

INTRODUCTION: The main role of the radiologist in the management of patients with suspicion of small bowel obstruction is to help triage patients into those that need immediate surgical intervention from those that require medical therapy or delayed surgery. Ultrasound examination is usually considered not helpful in bowel obstruction because of air in the intestinal lumen that interferes the evaluation of the intestinal loops, however recently some Authors attested the increasing important role of sonography in the acute abdominal disease. Aim of our report is to demonstrate the value of free fluid detected by US in differentiating between low and high-grade small bowel obstruction.

MATERIALS AND METHODS: The study is based on 742 consecutive patients who presented symptoms of the acute abdomen; all patients had undergone initial serial abdominal plain film and US examinations prior to any medical intervention. We reviewed the imaging findings of 150 cases in whom small bowel obstruction was clinically suspected and confirmed at surgery. We consider the following radiographic and US findings: dilatation of small bowel loops; bowel wall thickness; presence of air-fluid levels; thickness of valvulae conniventes; evidence of peristalsis; presence and echogenicity of extraluminal fluid. We looked at the value of extraluminal peritoneal fluid at US examination in differentiating low and high-grade small bowel obstruction based on the surgical outcome.

RESULTS: In 46 patients altered peristaltic activity, thin bowel walls, fluid filled loops with hyperechoic spots in the bowel segment proximal to obstruction were noted at US, whereas radiographic features were: moderate dilatation of small bowel loops, with thin bowel wall and evidence of numerous and subtle valvulae conniventes; presence of air-fluid levels was also noted. In 70 other patients, US examination revealed all the findings described in the precedent cases and also the presence of free extraluminal fluid; abdominal plain film showed an increased dilatation of small bowel loops with moderate thickened wall and air-fluid levels. In 34 other patients US examination revealed the presence of thick-walled loops, hypoperistalsis and a larger amount of free extraluminal fluid. Radiographic findings in these patients were: horizontal featured and markedly dilated small bowel loops presenting parietal thickness, presence of intraluminal fluid stasis and evidence of thickened, sparse and incomplete valvulae conniventes. At surgery etiology of small bowel obstructions was various, but most of cases related to adhesions (70 cases). The presence of extraluminal fluid were confirmed at surgery in 104 patients.

CONCLUSIONS: Our experience using sonography in suspicion of SBO (small bowel obstruction) suggests the usefulness of this imaging modality to differentiate a functional or obstructive ileus, demonstrating the evidence of intestinal peristalsis. Furthermore, the presence of a large amount of fluid between dilated small bowel loops suggests worsening mechanical small bowel obstruction, that requires not a medical therapy but immediate surgery.

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