Description and Causes
What are abdominal adhesions?
Abdominal adhesions are bands of tissue that form between abdominal tissues and organs. Normally, internal tissues and organs have slippery surfaces, which allow them to shift easily as the body moves. Adhesions cause tissues and organs to stick together.
The intestines are part of the digestive system. Abdominal adhesions can cause an intestinal obstruction.
Although most adhesions cause no symptoms or problems, others cause chronic abdominal or pelvic pain. Adhesions are also a major cause of intestinal obstruction and female infertility.
What causes abdominal adhesions?
Abdominal surgery is the most frequent cause of abdominal adhesions. Almost everyone who undergoes abdominal surgery develops adhesions; however, the risk is greater after operations on the lower abdomen and pelvis, including bowel and gynecological surgeries. Adhesions can become larger and tighter as time passes, causing problems years after surgery.
Surgery-induced causes of abdominal adhesions include:
- tissue incisions, especially those involving internal organs
- handling of internal organs
- the drying out of internal organs and tissues
- contact of internal tissues with foreign materials, such as gauze, surgical gloves, and stitches
- blood or blood clots that were not rinsed out during surgery
A less common cause of abdominal adhesions is inflammation from sources not related to surgery, including:
- appendicitis—in particular, appendix rupture
- radiation treatment for cancer
- gynecological infections
- abdominal infections
Rarely, abdominal adhesions form without apparent cause.
How can they cause intestinal obstruction?
Abdominal adhesions can kink, twist, or pull the intestines out of place, causing an intestinal obstruction. An intestinal obstruction partially or completely restricts the movement of food or stool through the intestines.
Intestinal obstruction requires immediate medical attention.
How can abdominal adhesions cause female infertility?
Abdominal adhesions cause female infertility by preventing fertilized eggs from reaching the uterus, where fetal development takes place. Adhesions can kink, twist, or pull out of place the fallopian tubes, which carry eggs from the ovaries—where eggs are stored and released—to the uterus.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
What are the symptoms of intestinal obstruction?
Intestinal obstruction can be partial or complete. A complete intestinal obstruction is life threatening.
Symptoms of an intestinal obstruction include:
- Severe abdominal pain or cramping
- Loud bowel sounds
- Swelling of the abdomen
- Inability to pass gas
A person with these symptoms should seek medical attention immediately.
What are the symptoms of abdominal adhesions?
Although most abdominal adhesions go unnoticed, the most common symptom is chronic abdominal or pelvic pain. The pain often mimics that of other conditions, including appendicitis, endometriosis, and diverticulitis.
How are abdominal adhesions and intestinal obstructions diagnosed?
No tests are available to diagnose adhesions, and adhesions cannot be seen through imaging techniques such as x-rays or ultrasound. Most adhesions are found during exploratory surgery.
An intestinal obstruction, however, can be seen through abdominal x-rays, barium contrast studies (also called a lower GI series), and computerized tomography.
Treatment and Prevention
How are abdominal adhesions and intestinal obstructions treated?
Treatment for abdominal adhesions is usually not necessary, as most do not cause problems. Surgery is currently the only way to break adhesions that cause pain, intestinal obstruction, or fertility problems.
More surgery, however, carries the risk of additional adhesions and is avoided when possible.
If you don’t need emergency surgery, doctors may try to treat the obstruction without surgery. Health care professionals will give you intravenous (IV) fluids and insert a tube through your nose and into your stomach to remove the contents of your digestive tract above the obstruction. In some cases, the obstruction may go away. If the obstruction does not go away, surgeons will perform surgery to release the adhesions, relieving the intestinal obstruction
Can abdominal adhesions be prevented?
Abdominal adhesions are difficult to prevent; however, surgical technique can minimize adhesions.
Laparoscopic surgery avoids opening up the abdomen with a large incision. Instead, the abdomen is inflated with gas while special surgical tools and a video camera are threaded through a few, small abdominal incisions. Inflating the abdomen gives the surgeon room to operate.
If a large abdominal incision is required, a special film-like material (Seprafilm) can be inserted between organs or between the organs and the abdominal incision at the end of surgery. The film-like material, which looks similar to wax paper, is absorbed by the body in about a week.
Other steps during surgery to reduce adhesion formation include using starch and latex-free gloves, handling tissues and organs gently, shortening surgery time, and not allowing tissues to dry out.
Adapted from “Abdominal Adhesions”– IFFGD Publication #249. From NIH Publication No. 13-5037, September 2013.
The text of this article is not copyrighted. Updated 2020