Meckel's diverticulum is a congenital sacculation of the distal ileum occurring in 2 to 3% of people. It is usually located within 100 cm of the ileocecal valve and often contains heterotopic gastric tissue, pancreatic tissue, or both. Symptoms are uncommon but include bleeding, bowel obstruction, and inflammation (diverticulitis). Diagnosis is difficult and often involves radionuclide scanning and barium studies. Treatment is surgical resection.
In early fetal life, the vitelline duct running from the terminal ileum to the umbilicus and yolk sac is normally obliterated by the 7th wk. If the portion connecting to the ileum fails to atrophy, a Meckel's diverticulum results. This congenital diverticulum arises from the antimesenteric margin of the intestine and contains all layers of the normal bowel. About 50% of diverticula also contain heterotopic tissue of the stomach (and thus contain parietal cells that secrete HCl), pancreas, or both.
Only about 2% of people with Meckel's diverticulum develop complications. Although diverticula are equally common among males and females, males are 2 to 3 times more likely to have complications. Complications include the following:
Bleeding is more common among young children (< 5 yr) and occurs when acid secreted from ectopic gastric mucosa in the diverticulum ulcerates the adjacent ileum. Obstruction can occur at any age but is more common among older children and adults. In children, obstruction is most likely caused by intussusception of the diverticulum. Obstruction may also result from adhesions, volvulus, retained foreign bodies, tumors, or incarceration in a hernia (Littre's hernia). Acute Meckel's diverticulitis can occur at any age, but its incidence peaks in older children. Tumors, including carcinoids, are rare and occur mainly in adults.
Symptoms and Signs
In all ages, intestinal obstruction is manifested by cramping abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. Acute Meckel's diverticulitis is characterized by abdominal pain and tenderness typically localized below or to the left of the umbilicus; it is often accompanied by vomiting and is similar to appendicitis except for location of pain.
Children may present with repeated episodes of painless, bright red rectal bleeding, which is usually not severe enough to cause shock. Adults may also bleed, typically resulting in melena rather than frank blood.
Diagnosis is difficult, and tests are chosen based on presenting symptoms. If rectal bleeding is suspected to originate from a Meckel's diverticulum, a 99mTc pertechnetate scan may identify ectopic gastric mucosa and hence the diverticulum. Patients presenting with abdominal pain and focal tenderness should have a CT scan with oral contrast. If vomiting and signs of obstruction are predominant, flat and upright x‑rays of the abdomen are done. Sometimes diagnosis is made only during surgical exploration for presumed appendicitis; whenever a normal appendix is found, Meckel's diverticulum should be suspected.
Patients with intestinal obstruction caused by Meckel's diverticulum require early surgery. For detailed treatment of intestinal obstruction, see Acute Abdomen and Surgical Gastroenterology: Treatment.
A bleeding diverticulum with an indurated area in the adjacent ileum requires resection of this section of the bowel and the diverticulum. A bleeding diverticulum without ileal induration requires only resection of the diverticulum.
Meckel's diverticulitis also requires resection. Small, asymptomatic diverticula encountered incidentally at laparotomy need not be removed.
Last full review/revision November 2007 by Michael C. DiMarino, MD
Content last modified February 2012