PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.
Mallory-Weiss syndrome (MWS) is characterised by upper gastrointestinal bleeding (UGIB) from mucosal lacerations in the upper gastrointestinal tract, usually at the gastro-oesophageal junction or gastric cardia. Mallory and Weiss described the syndrome in 1929 in patients retching and vomiting after an alcoholic binge.
MWS may also occur with other events which cause a sudden rise in intragastric pressure or gastric prolapse into the oesophagus. Sudden increased pressure within the nondistensible lower oesophagus causes tearing.
- Acute UGIB is an emergency and has a mortality overall of 6-13%.
- The majority of cases of UGIB are caused by peptic ulcers.
- Mallory Weiss tears account for 4-8% of cases of UGIB.
- There is a wide age range. It is most common between the ages of 30 and 50 years. Tears can occur in children but are less common.
- Mallory Weiss tears may have become more common in recent years.
Haematemesis due to a Mallory Weiss tear usually occurs after a prolonged or forceful bout of retching, vomiting, coughing, straining or even hiccupping.
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- Excessive alcohol ingestion.
- Conditions predisposing to retching and vomiting. For example:
- Hyperemesis gravidarum (the most common cause in women of child-bearing age).
- Renal disease.
- Raised intracranial pressure.
- Biliary disease (gallstones and cholecystitis).
- Cyclical vomiting syndrome.
- Gastrointestinal obstruction.
- Medication such as chemotherapy.
- Chronic cough or acute causes of prolonged coughing bouts. For example
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
- Cancer of the lung.
- Whooping cough.
- Hiatus hernia. During retching or vomiting, the transmural pressure gradient is greater within the hiatus hernia than the rest of the stomach.
- Blunt abdominal trauma and cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
- Iatrogenic. Tears during upper gastrointestinal instrumentation are uncommon, even with the high incidence of retching during endoscopy.
- Ingestion of aspirin or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
- In some patients no apparent precipitating factor can be identified.
- The classic presentation is of haematemesis following a bout of retching or vomiting. However, a tear may occur after a single vomit.
- Other symptoms include melaena, light-headedness, dizziness, or syncope, and features associated with the initial cause of the vomiting - eg, abdominal pain.
- There are no specific physical signs.
- An assessment of the degree of blood loss should be made. The Rockall scoring system can be used to assess UGIB. A score of less than 3 is associated with an excellent prognosis and 8 or above an extremely poor prognosis. MWS is usually associated with a score of 3 or less.
Haematemesis as a symptom has quite a long differential diagnosis. The following are important to consider (particularly with the retching and sudden bright bleeding associated with MWS):
- Boerhaave's syndrome (oesophageal rupture).
- Other causes of UGIB - see separate article Upper Gastrointestinal Bleeding (includes Rockall Score).
Endoscopy is the primary diagnostic investigation. Other relevant investigations include:
- FBC, including haematocrit to assess the severity of the initial bleeding episode and to monitor patients.
- Coagulation studies and platelet counts to detect coagulopathies and thrombocytopenias (routine platelet count, prothrombin time, and activated partial thromboplastin time).
- Renal function, urea, creatinine, and electrolyte levels (to guide intravenous fluid therapy).
- Cross-matching/ blood grouping and antibody screen (potential blood transfusion).
- Electrocardiogram and cardiac enzymes (may be indicated if myocardial ischaemia is suspected).
Initial management is described in the Upper Gastrointestinal Bleeding (includes Rockall Score) article
Initial assessment and management
- Resuscitation is a priority - maintain airway, provide high-flow oxygen, correct fluid losses (place two wide-bore cannulae and also send bloods at the same time). Initial fluid resuscitation may be with crystalloids or colloids; give intravenous blood when 30% of circulating volume is lost. Follow major haemorrhage protocols, which should be in place.
- Once the patient is more stable - take a history and perform an examination. Identify severity of blood loss and treat any comorbid conditions.
- MWS usually follows a benign course but occasionally endoscopic treatment is required to stop bleeding.
- Ideally, endoscopy should be performed within 24 hours, as tears heal rapidly and may not be readily apparent at endoscopy after 2-3 days. Haemodynamically unstable patients should have endoscopy immediately after resuscitation.
- Proton pump inhibitor (PPI) use is not recommended prior to diagnosis by endoscopy. A Cochrane review found PPI use at this stage was not associated with a reduction in re-bleeding, need for surgery or mortality.
- Most patients stop bleeding spontaneously. A few will require endoscopic intervention. There is no consensus about the best endoscopic technique to use. Banding and clipping techniques have been found to be effective. Other techniques used are injection with adrenaline (epinephrine) and thermocoagulation therapies.
- Most patients present with a single tear. The tear is usually just below the gastro-oesophageal junction on the lesser curvature of the stomach.
- Tears may be associated with other mucosal lesions. These may contribute to bleeding and/or cause the retching and vomiting. Endoscopic examination should be thorough to look for co-existing lesions.
Calculate the full (post-endoscopic) Rockall Score, as described in the Upper Gastrointestinal Bleeding (includes Rockall Score) article. A score <3 is associated with low risk of re-bleeding or death and can be considered for early discharge, whereas a score >3 indicates patients need further close observation as an inpatient.
- Careful monitoring is needed after endoscopy for UGIB (pulse, blood pressure, urine output). It is imperative to identify re-bleeding or continuing bleeding.
- Patients with clinical risk factors for re-bleeding (for example, portal hypertension, coagulopathy) comprise about 10% of cases. These and those with certain endoscopic findings (non-bleeding visible vessel, pigmented protuberance, or adherent clot) should be observed for 48 hours.
- If patients are stable 4-6 hours after endoscopy they should be put on a light diet, as there is no benefit in continued fasting.
- Occasionally the bleeding cannot be stopped using endoscopic treatments. Angiography with vasopressin injection or embolisation is occasionally used in this situation. Rarely, surgery is required to close the tear.
- If re-bleeding occurs, it usually takes place within 48 hours. Shock at initial manifestation and active bleeding at endoscopy are risk factors predicting recurrent bleeding in patients with MWS.
These relate to:
- Severity of bleeding:
- Hypovolaemic shock, and death (very rare with good care).
- Re-bleeding. (More common in those with shock at presentation, lower haemoglobin levels, multiple transfusions or active bleeding seen at endoscopy.)
- Myocardial ischaemia or infarction.
- Treatment or investigation:
- Endoscopy (mediastinitis, aspiration pneumonia, perforation or aggravation of bleeding).
- Angiotherapy (organ ischaemia and infarction, aggravation of bleeding).
- The prognosis is generally excellent. Most patients usually stop bleeding spontaneously and the tears heal rapidly, usually within 48-72 hours. The majority have stopped bleeding by the time of endoscopy.
- However, bleeding is variable and can range from a few specks or streaks of blood mixed with mucus to large amounts of fresh blood.
- Re-bleeding occurs in 8-20% but is more common in those with risk factors (see under 'Prevention' section, below).
- Associated diseases may have a significant effect on prognosis; for example, cirrhosis carries a very poor prognosis.
Recurrence is rare but it makes sense to counsel patients about precipitating factors (for example, binge drinking, alcohol consumption, excessive straining and lifting, violent coughing) that may lead to a recurrence and are generally hazardous to health. Risk factors for recurrent bleeding include:
- Initial presentation of shock.
- Liver cirrhosis.
- Decreased haemoglobin and platelet count.
- Need for blood transfusion.
- Intensive care management.
- Active bleeding noted at the time of endoscopy.
Further reading & references
- Holster IL, Kuipers EJ; Management of acute nonvariceal upper gastrointestinal bleeding: current policies and future perspectives. World J Gastroenterol. 2012 Mar 21;18(11):1202-7.
- Wilkins T, Khan N, Nabh A, et al; Diagnosis and management of upper gastrointestinal bleeding. Am Fam Physician. 2012 Mar 1;85(5):469-76.
- Henrion J, Schapira M, Ghilain JM, et al; Upper gastrointestinal bleeding: What has changed during the last 20 years? Gastroenterol Clin Biol. 2008 Sep 9.
- Ismail SK, Kenny L; Review on hyperemesis gravidarum. Best Pract Res Clin Gastroenterol. 2007;21(5):755-69.
- Acute upper GI bleeding; NICE Clinical Guideline (June 2012)
- Lewis AM, Dharmarajah R; Walked in with Boerhaave's, Emerg Med J. 2007 Apr;24(4):e24.
- Management of acute upper and lower gastrointestinal bleeding; Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network - SIGN (September 2008)
- Sreedharan A, Martin J, Leontiadis GI, et al; Proton pump inhibitor treatment initiated prior to endoscopic diagnosis in upper gastrointestinal bleeding. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010 Jul 7;(7):CD005415. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD005415.pub3.
- Higuchi N, Akahoshi K, Sumida Y, et al; Endoscopic band ligation therapy for upper gastrointestinal bleeding related to Mallory-Weiss syndrome. Surg Endosc. 2006 Sep;20(9):1431-4. Epub 2006 May 15.
- Lecleire S, Antonietti M, Iwanicki-Caron I, et al; Endoscopic band ligation could decrease recurrent bleeding in Mallory-Weiss syndrome as compared to haemostasis by hemoclips plus epinephrine. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2009 Aug 15;30(4):399-405. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2036.2009.04051.x. Epub 2009 May 26.
- Cho YS, Chae HS, Kim HK, et al; Endoscopic band ligation and endoscopic hemoclip placement for patients with Mallory-Weiss syndrome and active bleeding. World J Gastroenterol. 2008 Apr 7;14(13):2080-4.
- Shimoda R, Iwakiri R, Sakata H, et al; Endoscopic hemostasis with metallic hemoclips for iatrogenic Mallory-Weiss tear caused by endoscopic examination. Dig Endosc. 2009 Jan;21(1):20-3. doi: 10.1111/j.1443-1661.2008.00825.x.
- Kim JW, Kim HS, Byun JW, et al; Predictive factors of recurrent bleeding in Mallory-Weiss syndrome. Korean J Gastroenterol. 2005 Dec;46(6):447-54.
- Schemmer P, Decker F, Dei-Anane G, et al; The vital threat of an upper gastrointestinal bleeding: Risk factor analysis of 121 consecutive patients. World J Gastroenterol. 2006 Jun 14;12(22):3597-601.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.
Dr Richard Draper
Dr Mary Harding
Dr Adrian Bonsall