Diagnostic imaging features of necrotizing enterocolitis: a narrative review
Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) is an inflammatory process, characterized by intestinal necrosis of variable extension, leading to perforation, generalized peritonitis and death. The classical pathogenetic theory focuses on mucosal damage related to a stress induced intestinal ischemia leading to mucosal injury and bacterial colonization of the wall. A more recent hypothesis emphasizes the role of immaturity of gastrointestinal and immune system, particularly of the premature, responsible of bowel wall vulnerability and suffering. NEC is the most common gastrointestinal emergency in the newborn, with a higher incidence in the preterm; improvement of neonatal resuscitation techniques enables the survival of premature of very low birth weight (VLBW) with prolongation of hospital stay for perinatal and neonatal care and a higher risk of NEC. Clinical presentation of NEC in newborn ranges from mild forms with moderate gastrointestinal tract disorder and that can heal spontaneously, to very serious forms with fulminant course characterized by perforation, peritonitis, sepsis, disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC) and shock. Imaging modality in the diagnosis of NEC is historically represented by the plain-film abdominal radiographs which can be performed every 6 hours because of the rapid evolution that may occur in the patient’s clinical condition. However ultrasound (US), in recent years, is playing an increasingly important role in the evaluation of early stages of the disease as it provides images in real time of the abdominal structures being able to assess the presence and validity of peristalsis of the bowel loops, detect the thickness of the intestinal wall and the presence of minimal amounts of fluid in the peritoneal cavity. In this paper we review the pathogenesis, clinical presentation and imaging of NEC with a particular attention to the emergent role of US in the diagnosis of the disease.