Surgical decision making in necrotizing enterocolitis and focal intestinal perforation: predictive value of radiologic findings

J Pediatr Surg. 2002 Dec;37(12):1688-91. doi: 10.1053/jpsu.2002.36696.


Background/purpose: Given the current controversy over the appropriate surgical management (peritoneal drainage versus exploratory laparotomy) of advanced necrotizing enterocolitis and focal intestinal perforation, the authors examined the predictive value of radiologic findings.

Methods: The medical records of 80 infants undergoing exploratory laparotomy for presumed advanced necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) or focal intestinal perforation (FIP) were reviewed. Radiologic criteria were evaluated as predictors of NEC (pneumatosis intestinalis, portal venous gas) or perforation (free air, gasless abdomen). The standard epidemiologic measures were calculated for each criterion.

Results: For pneumatosis intestinalis, the sensitivity was 44% (n = 27) and specificity, 100% (n = 19). For portal venous gas, the sensitivity was 13% (n = 8) and specificity, 100% (n = 19). The sensitivity and specificity calculated for free air was 52% (n = 23) and 92% (n = 33), respectively. The sensitivity and specificity calculated for a gasless abdomen was 32% (n = 14) and 92% (n = 33), respectively.

Conclusions: While demonstrating high specificity, the radiologic signs traditionally associated with NEC and FIP have unexpectedly low sensitivities. Although positive radiologic findings are of great predictive value, negative radiologic findings acquired while determining the need for and specific type of surgical intervention in suspected NEC or FIP must be interpreted with extreme caution.

MeSH terms

  • Enterocolitis, Necrotizing / diagnostic imaging*
  • Enterocolitis, Necrotizing / surgery*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Low Birth Weight
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Infant, Premature, Diseases / diagnostic imaging
  • Infant, Premature, Diseases / surgery
  • Intestinal Perforation / diagnostic imaging*
  • Intestinal Perforation / surgery*
  • Laparotomy / statistics & numerical data
  • Male
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Radiography
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Sensitivity and Specificity