Abdominal Adhesions

Overview

What are abdominal adhesions?

Abdominal adhesions are bands of scar tissue that form between abdominal organs, mainly the small intestine. Adhesions occur after abdominal surgery and can cause your tissues to stick together, when normally they would just move around freely.

What is the abdominal cavity?

The abdominal cavity is the inside of the body, from the chest to the hips. It contains the:

  • Digestive system, including your stomach and intestines.
  • Female reproductive organs.
  • Kidneys and adrenal glands.
  • Liver
  • Pancreas.
  • Spleen.

Symptoms and Causes

What causes abdominal adhesions?

Adhesions occur after abdominal surgery, particularly between loops of small bowel.

What are the symptoms?

Most adhesions cause no symptoms at all. Sometimes, though, abdominal adhesions can cause the intestines to twist, similar to how a garden hose can become kinked. This condition can occur shortly after, or even years after surgery and can lead to complete or partial intestinal obstruction, also called small bowel obstruction.

With obstruction, food, liquid, air and waste cannot pass through the body. You may notice signs such as:

  • Severe abdominal pain.
  • Bloating.
  • Nausea and vomiting.

Diagnosis and Tests

How are abdominal adhesions diagnosed?

Imaging technology (such as X-rays, ultrasounds and CT scans) cannot detect abdominal adhesions. However, those studies can detect intestinal blockages related to adhesions

Management and Treatment

Do I need treatment for abdominal adhesions?

Most adhesions cause no symptoms and don’t require any therapy at all.

Additional surgeries will only cause more adhesions. For that reason, your healthcare provider likely will try to avoid surgery, unless blockages keep causing symptoms.

For adhesions causing obstructions, either acute (complete blockage) or chronic (repeated attacks that go away on their own), surgical removal of the scar tissue may be the only option.

Prevention

Can you prevent abdominal adhesions?

A surgeon cannot avoid creating abdominal adhesions. However, adhesions are usually less common with laparoscopic surgery because of the smaller cuts. During a laparoscopic procedure, your surgeon inserts a tiny camera and instruments through small incisions.

Open surgery requires larger incisions, which can cause more adhesions. Again, the good news is that most of these adhesions don’t cause any problems

Outlook / Prognosis

What is the outlook for people with abdominal adhesions?

A person may have severe abdominal adhesions and never have any symptoms at all. However, if you experience sudden complete blockage of your bowels or repeated bowel obstruction after surgery, an operation may need to be considered by your surgeon.

Living With

When should I seek medical care?

A complete obstruction is life-threatening. If you experience any of the following symptoms, seek medical attention immediately:

  • Severe abdominal pains or cramps.
  • Significant abdominal (belly) swelling or bloating.
  • Nausea or vomiting.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Abdominal adhesions are very common after any operation in the abdominal cavity. Most patients never have any problems. However, if you have any signs of possible bowel obstruction, even years after surgery, tell your healthcare provider or get immediate medical attention.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/20/2020.

References

  • Britannica. . Accessed 10/20/2020.Abdominal Cavity (https://www.britannica.com/science/abdominal-cavity)
  • International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders.. Accessed 10/20/2020. Abdominal Adhesions (https://www.iffgd.org/other-disorders/abdominal-adhesions.html)
  • Merck Manual Professional Version. . Accessed 10/20/2020.Intestinal Obstruction (https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/gastrointestinal-disorders/acute-abdomen-and-surgical-gastroenterology/intestinal-obstruction)
  • National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. . Accessed 10/20/2020.Abdominal Adhesions (https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/abdominal-adhesions)
  • Resolve: National Infertility Association. . Accessed 10/20/2020.Pelvic Adhesions: Impact on Fertility (https://resolve.org/infertility-101/optimizing-my-fertility/pelvic-adhesions-impact-on-fertility/)

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