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Could gum help the colon bounce back from surgery?

By Genevra Pittman

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Chewing gum after surgery for colon cancer may not help kick the intestines back into gear - but it also probably won't hurt, a new study suggests.

The surgery, which involves removing part of the colon, typically keeps patients in the hospital for a week or more while doctors wait for the bowel to start working and for people to be able to eat normally again.

Past studies have hinted that gum might help cut that recovery time if the body responds to chewing by preparing the gut to receive food, researchers said. Although the new findings challenge that theory, one colorectal surgeon thinks gum is still worth a go.

"It's quite reasonable to try sugar-free gum to help stimulate gastrointestinal recovery after major abdominal surgery, as there appears to be no downside, and it's cheap, unlike many other medications," said Dr. Conor Delaney, from University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland.

Delaney, who wasn't involved in the new research, told Reuters Health that he and his own team have combined less-invasive surgery with a set recovery plan to cut hospital stays to two and a half days after so-called colorectal resection, on average. Their plan includes advising patients to chew gum after surgery.

For the new study, Patrick Lim and colleagues from the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia, randomly assigned people having either open or less-invasive colon surgery to chew gum four times a day after surgery or not to chew gum.

Their study included 157 patients treated at one of two hospitals between 2008 and 2011.

What the research team was looking for was how quickly patients regained their bowel function after surgery - measured by when they started producing gas.

People who didn't chew gum said it took an average of 51 hours - just over two days - for their intestines to start gearing up again, compared to 43 hours among gum chewers. However statistically, that difference could have been due to chance, according to Lim's team.

Delaney said it's possible the new study simply didn't include enough patients to tease out a clear difference between the groups.

"There's a lot of data suggesting that it's probably about a 20-hour improvement" that comes with gum chewing, he added.

"The true result may be that chewing gum still results in a real, but less dramatic improvement, in gastrointestinal function" when combined with other recovery techniques, the researchers wrote in the Annals of Surgery.

Because there weren't any side effects tied to gum chewing, Lim and his colleagues said the strategy could still have potential among some patients recovering from colon surgery - but more research is needed to determine which ones are likely to benefit.

SOURCE: http://bit.ly/10dWAGZ Annals of Surgery, online March 6, 2013.

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