• Clinical science

Volvulus and intestinal malrotation


Volvulus is defined as the twisting of a loop of bowel on its mesentery and is one of the most common causes of intestinal obstruction. The sigmoid colon, and less frequently, the cecum, are the common sites of volvulus in adults. Volvulus in a neonate or infant almost always presents as a midgut volvulus secondary to intestinal malrotation. Patients typically show features of bowel obstruction (abdominal pain, distension, bilious vomiting) or of bowel ischemia and gangrene (tachycardia, hypotension, hematochezia, peritonitis) in severe cases. The whirl sign and a grossly dilated loop of bowel on an abdominal CT scan establish the diagnosis of volvulus in adults. Upper GI series is the investigation of choice in infants with suspected midgut volvulus, which is seen as a cork-screw duodenum. Sigmoid volvulus without peritonitis is initially managed with endoscopic detorsion, followed by a semi-elective surgery (sigmoid colectomy). Sigmoid volvulus with peritonitis, and all cases of cecal volvulus, require emergency surgery. Endoscopic detorsion should not be attempted in a patient with cecal volvulus because of the high risk of perforation. The Ladd procedure (laparotomy and detorsion of the volvulus) is indicated in all patients with intestinal malrotation since it is impossible to predict if volvulus of the midgut will occur in an asymptomatic patient or not.



Epidemiological data refers to the US, unless otherwise specified.

Risk factors for the development of a volvulus

  • Long mesentery
    • Acquired (sigmoid volvulus): chronic constipation , high-fiber diet → chronic overloading of the sigmoid colon → lengthening of the sigmoid colon and its mesentery → increased risk of torsion
    • Congenital (cecal volvulus): mobile cecum → predisposition of the cecum to rotate on its axis (axial torsion) or fold upwards (cecal bascule)
  • Intestinal malrotation: abnormal rotation of the bowel with abnormal fixation of mesentery to the posterior abdominal wall
  • Megacolon (Hirschsprung's disease, Chaga's disease)
  • Intestinal bands/adhesions
  • Decreased pelvic space: pregnancy or pelvic mass
  • Previous history of volvulus



  • Torsion of bowel on its axis
    • Closed-loop mechanical bowel obstruction → accumulation of gas and feces within the loop → increased intraluminal pressure → impaired capillary perfusion of bowel → bowel strangulation, ischemia, and gangrene
    • → Torsion of the mesenteric vascular pedicle → occlusion/thrombosis of mesenteric vessels → bowel strangulation, ischemia, and gangrene


Sigmoid volvulus

Clinical features

  • Previous episodes of abdominal pain, which decreased after explosive passage of stool/gas
  • Slowly (most common) or rapidly progressive symptoms of bowel obstruction
  • If bowel ischemia occurs → tachycardia, hypotension, peritonitis (rebound tenderness), hematochezia or blood on DRE may be present
  • If bowel perforation occurs → obliteration of liver dullness on percussion
  • Features of underlying disease (e.g., Parkinson's disease, hemiplegia) should also be looked for.

Differential diagnoses


  1. Initial resuscitation: IV fluids; acid-base and electrolyte imbalance correction; nil per oral; placement of a nasogastric tube
  2. Evaluation
    • No signs of peritonitis : rigid/flexible sigmoidoscopic detorsion; of the volvulus → inspection of the mucosa for signs of ischemia
      • No signs of mucosal ischemia → placement of a soft rectal tube (for bowel decompression) → semi-elective surgery within 72 hours of detorsion There is no specific time interval to perform surgery after endoscopic decompression. ∼ 72 hours is sufficient to resuscitate and hydrate the patient, and allow for adequate bowel decompression.
      • Signs of mucosal ischemia → emergency surgery (see below)
    • Signs of peritonitis/unsuccessful endoscopic detorsion → broad-spectrum IV antibiotics and emergency surgery
  3. Surgery


Cecal volvulus


  • Axial torsion of the cecum (90% of cases): the cecum rotates on its mesenteric axis → bowel obstruction with vascular compromise
  • Cecal bascule (10%): the cecum folds upwards onto the ascending colonbowel obstruction often without vascular compromise

Clinical features

  • Acute presentation: features of small bowel obstruction
  • Insidious onset: recurrent episodes of right lower abdominal pain

Differential diagnoses


  1. Initial resuscitation (See “Treatment” of sigmoid volvulus above.)
  2. Surgery
    • Hemodynamically stable patients: ileocecal resection or right colectomy with ileocolic anastomosis If gangrenous bowel is found, the volvulus should not be untwisted since it can cause bacteremia and sepsis (caused by entry of bacteria into the systemic circulation).
    • Hemodynamically unstable patients
      • Cecostomy
      • Detorsion with cecopexy


Intestinal malrotation and midgut volvulus


  • Intestinal malrotation: arrest in the normal rotation of the gut in utero, resulting in an abnormal orientation of the bowel and mesentery within the abdominal cavity
  • Normal intestinal rotation: the midgut starts to elongate in utero (4th week) herniation of the midgut out of the umbilicus (6th week) → 90° counter-clockwise rotation of the midgutre-entry of the midgut into the abdominal cavity(10th week) → 180° rotation inside the abdominal cavity (a total of 270°) → fixation of the duodenojejunal flexure and cecum to the posterior abdominal wall
Common types of intestinal malrotation
Nonrotation Incomplete rotation
  • The entire colon is left-sided; the entire small bowel is right-sided
  • The cecum remains fixed in the RUQ by peritoneal bands (Ladd bands)
  • The mesenteric attachment has a wider base than in incomplete rotation

Clinical presentation

Differential diagnoses





  • Work-up follows the same protocol as that for bowel obstruction.
  • Abdominal x-ray (erect and supine)
    • Sigmoid volvulus: coffee bean sign (bent inner tube sign/inverted U sign)
    • Cecal volvulus: kidney bean sign (axial torsion) cecal bascule: dilated cecum in the center of the abdominal cavity; an air-distended appendix may also be seen
    • Bowel perforation: air under diaphragm
  • CT scan
    • Whirl sign: pathognomonic for volvulus
    • Specific features of sigmoid/cecal volvulus are similar to those seen in x-rays
    • Demonstrates bowel ischemia , or perforation , if present
  • Barium enema: : bird's beak sign (tapering of the dye column at the site of the twist)
    • In cecal bascule, the end of the barium column is rounded, rather than tapered (tear drop sign).
    • Cecal volvulus: normal-sized colon with bird's beak sign at the cecum; dye does not enter the small bowel
    • Sigmoid volvulus: normal-sized rectum with bird's beak sign at the sigmoid; dye does not enter the sigmoid colon

Intestinal malrotation and midgut volvulus

Imaging in intestinal malrotation and midgut volvulus

Intestinal malrotation

Midgut volvulus

Upper GI series (gold standard in hemodynamically stable patients)

  • Displaced duodenojejunal junction
  • The small bowel is right-sided.
Barium enema (lower GI series)
  • Malpositioning of the cecum (left-sided cecum)
Abdominal ultrasound
  • Abnormal position of the superior mesenteric vessels and bowel
  • Whirlpool sign (on color doppler)

CECT scan (oral and IV contrast)

  • Findings similar to those seen on ultrasound
  • Findings similar to those seen on ultrasound
  • Can demonstrate bowel ischemia , or perforation , if present
Abdominal x-ray
  • Is often normal; demonstrates bowel perforation, if present ; double bubble sign may be seen in patients with duodenal obstruction