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Nurse Endorses Coffee to Stimulate Bowels After Surgery

Passing gas doesn't seem like a great accomplishment unless you have had abdominal surgery. Doctors need to stimulate bowels after surgery to prevent POI.

Anyone who has had abdominal surgery knows that the surgical team won’t let you leave the hospital until you fart. The passage of gas demonstrates that your digestive tract has started working again. The reason that is so important is to prevent some serious called POI (post-operative ileus). In essence, parts of your intestines stop functioning. There aren’t a lot of successful medical strategies to stimulate bowels after surgery.

Lack of muscular contractions in the digestive tract can then lead to a buildup of fluid and gas in parts of the bowel. After three days doctors get worried if you do not “break wind.” The symptoms of POI include nausea, vomiting, pain, bloating and abdominal tenderness (Clinics in Colon and Rectal Surgery, Feb. 2009). 

Coffee Can Stimulate Bowels After Surgery:

Q. As an RN since the 1970s, I’ve cared for countless patients who’ve undergone abdominal surgery. We used to keep many of them “NPO” (meaning “nothing by mouth”). We sometimes gave them very small amounts of clear liquids until we heard normal bowel sounds and they passed flatus (gas).

We subsequently learned that there were safe ways to stimulate the digestive tract and help get things back to normal. Giving patients coffee definitely yielded excellent results. In addition to coffee, virtually any warm or hot drink was really helpful.

In addition, many surgeons routinely prescribe chewing gum! I’ve not studied this, but perhaps the entire experience of chewing and swallowing, along with the sugar, stimulates peristalsis.

Of course, every post-operative patient must be carefully evaluated by their health care practitioner to determine when it’s appropriate to resume taking anything by mouth.

A. You might be surprised to learn that scientists have studied the effects of coffee on post-operative bowel function. A recent randomized controlled trial found that coffee was more effective than tea for getting the bowels to move after surgery (Diseases of the Colon and Rectum, Aug. 2019).  Even though some people in the tea group cheated and drank a little coffee, those assigned to coffee got out of the hospital a day earlier.

What About Gum to Stimulate Bowels After Surgery?

A thorough review of 17 studies on gum chewing after Caesarian section found that this:

“enhances early recovery of bowel function”

(Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Oct. 17, 2016)

You are right that the judgment on when this is safe must be made on an individual case-by-case basis. Coffee, warm water or chewing gum are low-tech remedies to stimulate bowels after surgery and prevent POI. 

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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  • Carroll, J. and Alavi, K. “Pathogenesis and Management of Postoperative Ileus,” Clinics in Colon and Rectal Surgery, Feb. 2009, doi: 10.1055/s-0029-1202886
  • Hasler-Gehrer, S., et al, "Does Coffee Intake Reduce Postoperative Ileus After Laparoscopic Elective Colorectal Surgery? A Prospective, Randomized Controlled Study: The Coffee Study," Diseases of the Colon and Rectum, Aug. 2019, DOI: 10.1097/DCR.0000000000001405
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