What Is Mesenteric Panniculitis?

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on February 20, 2024
3 min read

Mesenteric panniculitis is a rare condition that affects the fat-cell-containing part of the mesentery. Mesenteries are tissue folds in the body. They're essential in the abdomen, since they provide support and attach the small intestine to the wall of the abdomen. 

Currently, there's no specific known cause of mesenteric panniculitis. Experts believe that the condition could be due to abdominal surgery, an autoimmune disease (immune cells start attacking the body), or bacterial infection. 

Mesenteric panniculitis causes persistent and long-term inflammation in the mesentery. This destroys the fat tissues and leads to mesenteric scarring. 

Mesenteric panniculitis is not life-threatening in most cases. Sometimes, it goes away on its own. At other times, it worsens. An excess of inflammation can also interfere with other bodily functions. 

Doctors also refer to this condition as sclerosing mesenteritis, depending on the stage of inflammation. 

There are no known causes of mesenteric panniculitis, but experts think it may be a symptom of an autoimmune disease. Typically, your immune system fights off foreign agents, like viruses and bacteria. In the case of an autoimmune disease, the immune system starts breaking down the body's own cells. It's possible that mesenteric panniculitis may be caused by the immune system's attack on the mesentery. This results in inflammation. 

There are risk factors for developing mesenteric panniculitis, such as abdominal surgery or trauma to the stomach. If anyone in your family has mesenteric panniculitis, you may also develop the condition, because autoimmune disorders are often genetic. 

Some people develop the condition after recovering from cancer. Another possible cause of mesenteric panniculitis is infection. If you have had typhoid fever, rheumatic fever, or malaria, it could increase your risk of the disease. 

Research has also linked mesenteric panniculitis to certain cancers, like kidney cancer and prostate cancer. A 2016 study showed that 28% of the people who had mesenteric panniculitis were either recently diagnosed with these cancers or had them in the past. 

In most people, mesenteric panniculitis has no symptoms. Others may develop a mass in the upper abdomen. 

Common symptoms of mesenteric panniculitis are: 

  • Bloating
  • Swollen abdomen 
  • Weight loss
  • Fever
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Symptoms can vary from one person to another. In some cases, you may have abdominal pain as the swelling of the intestines puts pressure on the organs nearby. 

Doctors often misdiagnose this condition because it is quite rare. 

If you have any of the symptoms listed above, your doctor will conduct a blood test to look for inflammation markers in your body. They may also recommend a CT scan to check for signs of a soft-tissue mass that characterizes mesenteric panniculitis. 

Depending on your condition, your doctor may recommend a biopsy. In a biopsy, a tissue sample is removed from your mesentery for lab analysis.

Doctors use the test results to determine the extent of mesenteric damage and to recommend a treatment plan. 

Initially, you may not need any treatment for the condition. Doctors use a "watch and wait" approach, in which they only monitor you rather than giving any kind of medications or other treatment options. Your doctor will check the CT scan results to see if inflammation is increasing or getting worse. In most cases, the condition goes away on its own. 

If extreme inflammation is causing you pain and discomfort, your doctor will prescribe medications that reduce inflammation by suppressing the response of the immune system. A commonly prescribed class of drugs is corticosteroids. 

In general, surgery is not the preferred treatment unless the inflammation is blocking the small intestine.

Usually, mesenteric panniculitis does not get worse. But in some cases, the inflammation may block your small intestine. This leads to symptoms like bloating, pain, and nausea. It may also reduce the function of your intestine, keeping it from absorbing nutrients from food. 

Mesenteric panniculitis is chronic, which means it lasts for a long time. Sometimes, it may take months for the inflammation to go down. Although it's not life-threatening, mesenteric panniculitis can affect your quality of life. 

If anyone in your family has the disease or you experience any of its symptoms, speak to a doctor right away. Early diagnosis will help avoid any more discomfort and could prevent the condition from getting any worse.