Clinical and physiological studies were carried out in five patients with pneumatosis coli in order to investigate the origin of the high fasting breath hydrogen concentration in this condition and to determine its possible significance in the pathogenesis of the disease. All five patients excreted abnormally high fasting concentrations of hydrogen in their breath (69 +/- 9 ppm, mean +/- SEM). Moreover, analysis of the contents of the gas filled cysts revealed between 2% and 8% of hydrogen gas. Colonic washout significantly reduced breath hydrogen concentrations to 9 +/- 6 ppm, but did not abolish the cysts. Conversely, deflation of the cysts was achieved with oxygen or antibiotics, though this only reduced breath hydrogen concentrations to about 66% of their original value. After feeding a radiolabelled meal, breath hydrogen concentrations rose before the meal appeared to reach the colon, suggesting overgrowth of anaerobic bacteria in the small intestine. Despite this, 14C glycocholate breath tests were within normal limits. An alternative possibility is that the high levels of hydrogen excreted in the breath may be produced in the intestinal lumen possibly from the fermentation of copious amounts of colonic mucus. Finally, measurement of whole gut transit time and stool weight suggested that patients were constipated despite passing mucus and blood. The relevance of our observations to the pathogenesis of submucosal cysts is unclear, but the data favour the hypothesis that these are produced by invasion of the colonic submucosa with anaerobic bacteria.
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