What are abdominal adhesions?

Normally, the tissues and organs inside the tummy (abdomen) are slippery and move easily as the body moves. After surgery in the abdomen, bands of scar tissue (called adhesions) may form between abdominal tissues and organs, sticking them together.

 

Side view of the tummy (abdomen) showing the peritoneum
Image: The abdomen

 

 

What are the signs and symptoms of adhesions?

Adhesions often do not cause any problems. But sometimes they can cause pain. This may be more likely if you have also had radiotherapy to the abdomen.

Rarely, adhesions can make part of the bowel twist or kink, pulling it out of place so that it becomes blocked. This can cause symptoms such as:

  • severe pain or cramping in your tummy (abdominal pain)
  • sickness (vomiting)
  • bloating
  • loud gurgling sounds from the bowel
  • tummy swelling
  • not being able to pass wind
  • constipation.

If you have severe pain, you should contact a doctor straight away. You may need tests such as x-ray or a CT scan to check what is causing the pain.

If your symptoms are caused by a blocked bowel, you may need urgent treatment.

Treating a blocked bowel

Often the bowel is only partly blocked and gets better (unkinks) after being rested for a time. This may mean:

  • a short stay in hospital
  • not eating for a day or so and having fluids through a drip into a vein
  • having a liquid or low-residue diet.

A low-residue diet contains very low amounts of fibre. This means it is more easily broken down into smaller particles by the digestive system. Your nurse or doctor will explain this diet in more detail if you need to follow it for a short time.

If the bowel is completely blocked, you may need an urgent operation to relieve it.

Treating adhesions

Most people do not need treatment for adhesions as they usually cause no problems. Surgery is the only way to break adhesions that cause pain or bowel blockage. However, surgery may cause more adhesions, so it is avoided where possible.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our adhesions information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    BMJ Best Practice. Small bowel obstruction. [Internet], 2020. Available from bestpractice.bmj.com [accessed January 2021]. 

    ten Broek RPG, Krielen P, Di Saverio S et al. Bologna guidelines for diagnosis and management of adhesive small bowel obstruction (ASBO): 2017 update of the evidence-based guidelines from the world society of emergency surgery ASBO working group. World J Emerg Surg, 2018, 13, 24.   


  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Chief Medical Editor, Professor Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.