If the tissues inside your body become injured, such as during surgery, your immune system triggers a response that involves forming bands of scar tissue, called adhesions.
Scars are a natural part of all healing processes, and the scar tissue that is formed changes and adapts for many months. All types of surgery result in scar tissue being formed.
Most of the time, adhesions don't cause any problems, so you may not even know you have them. However, in some people who have had abdominal surgery, the scar tissue can cause the bowel to stick together. This can cause your bowel to become partially or completely blocked (obstructed). Partial bowel obstructions can cause reoccurring abdominal discomfort, which can make you feel sick and vomit. A complete bowel obstruction is a medical emergency. It causes severe pain, which initially comes on in waves before becoming constant.
If you’re a woman, adhesions caused by surgery in your pelvic area can pull your fallopian tubes out of place, which can lead to infertility.
You may not have any symptoms at all unless your adhesions start to cause further problems such as a bowel obstruction or infertility.
You may, however, have ongoing pain in your abdomen or pelvis. This won't always be a symptom of adhesions, but you should see your GP if you have pain or bloating that lasts for a long time.
If you have a bowel obstruction, you may:
You should seek urgent medical attention if you have these symptoms and they are severe, or if you have had previous problems with bowel obstructions.
Occasionally, a part of your bowel may become twisted tightly around a band of adhesions, cutting off the blood supply to your bowel. This is often referred to as strangulation of the bowel. It’s life-threatening and you will need immediate treatment. Symptoms of bowel strangulation can include:
If you have these symptoms in addition to those above, you should call for emergency help.
If you’re a woman and adhesions are affecting your fallopian tubes, you may find you have trouble getting pregnant. It's important to remember, however, that for any fertile couple it can take up to a year or more of having regular, unprotected sex to become pregnant. If you’re worried about your fertility, see your GP.
The main cause of adhesions developing is from having surgery on your abdomen or pelvis.
However, adhesions can also form as a result of inflammation caused by:
If you see your GP because you have pain in your abdomen or pelvis, he or she will ask about your symptoms and examine you. Your GP will also ask you about your medical history. He or she may refer you to a general surgeon who specialises in laparoscopic (keyhole) gastrointestinal surgery.
If you’re having fertility problems, your GP will refer you to a gynaecologist (a doctor who specialises in women's reproductive health).
The only way of being able to tell for certain whether you have an adhesion is to look inside your body. This can be done with keyhole surgery. However, surgery always carries some risks and may lead to further adhesion formation.
Your doctor may carry out the following tests to confirm whether you have a bowel obstruction and if so, how serious it is. He or she may:
Most people who have adhesions will not need any treatment for them as they don't usually cause any problems. However, if your doctor thinks you have a possible bowel obstruction or adhesion-related pain, you may be referred to hospital for treatment. If you have fertility problems caused by adhesions, your gynaecologist will be able to discuss your options with you.
If you need pain relief, you can take over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Always read the patient information that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.
In the early stages, if you restrict your fluid intake to sips of non-fizzy drinks and don’t eat for 24 hours, this can treat the problem by preventing it from developing into a full bowel obstruction. Even if a bowel obstruction has fully developed, it will usually get better with time. However, you may need to be admitted to hospital for treatment, so your doctor can monitor you until your bowel obstruction clears. In hospital, you will have a drip put into your vein in your arm to make sure you get enough fluids and salts. You may also have a tube put into your nose to release gas and fluid from your bowel.
Your doctor may suggest you have a liquid diet, or a diet low in fibre, so your food can pass through your bowel more easily. This can help to relieve the obstruction. If your obstruction doesn't clear after a few days, your doctor may advise you to have surgery.
Surgery to break up adhesions is called adhesiolysis and is currently the only way to treat adhesions. However, as any operation carries a risk of creating further adhesions, you will only be advised to have adhesiolysis if your surgeon thinks it will be beneficial for you. For instance, if you have a complete bowel obstruction or strangulated bowel that is life-threatening, you might need adhesiolysis as an emergency procedure. You can also have the procedure if you’re having fertility problems caused by adhesions.
Adhesiolysis can be carried out using keyhole surgery. This involves your surgeon making several small cuts in your abdomen or pelvis to cut through the scar tissue, rather than making one large cut on your skin as in traditional open surgery.
Your doctor may also give you the option of having surgery if you have ongoing pelvic or abdominal pains or bloating. However, it's important to remember that surgery may not improve your pain, and there is a risk it could make your pain worse. You will have an opportunity to discuss the risks, benefits and possible alternatives of the procedure with your surgeon, before you give your consent for the procedure to go ahead.
Adhesions are difficult to prevent if you need to have surgery. Scientists are currently trying to develop special films and fluids, which can be used during surgery, to prevent adhesions forming. However, more studies on these products are needed before doctors will be able to tell how well they work.
Produced by Krysta Munford, Bupa Health Information Team, May 2012.