How To Know If You Have a Perforated Bowel

A Bowel Perforation Is Rare With IBD -- But It Is Serious

Perforation of the small intestine or the large intestine is a serious and potentially fatal complication of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). A perforated bowel is a surgical emergency and needs immediate treatment to prevent further complications such as infection or even death. A perforated bowel is a hole in the wall of the intestine which can occur for a variety of reasons. It is not common, but because it is an emergency situation, knowing the signs and symptoms is important, particularly for people who have IBD.

Anyone who is concerned that they have symptoms of a bowel perforation should contact a doctor right away. In the case of acute symptoms such as heavy bleeding (from the rectum) and severe abdominal pain, seek attention at a local emergency department or call an ambulance (dial 911).

How Common Is Bowel Perforation?

A perforated bowel due to IBD is thankfully a rare event. The risk of perforation in people who have Crohn's disease is estimated to be between 1 and 3 percent over the course of the disease. Perforations are more common, however, during the first flare-up of ulcerative colitis. The risk increases in particular when that first flare-up is extremely severe in nature. A perforation may also occur when long standing disease (such as after about 8 to 10 years after diagnosis) causes the wall of the intestine to become very weak because of deep ulcerations. The weakened intestinal walls are more susceptible to developing a hole or a tear.

Symptoms of an Intestinal Perforation

The symptoms of a perforation can include:

  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Nausea
  • Rectal bleeding, sometimes heavy
  • Vomiting

Diagnosing a Bowel Perforation

A bowel perforation is often diagnosed based on the history and a physical examination of the patient. Having many of the above symptoms may lead a physician to suspect a perforation, especially for those with Crohn's disease, or long-standing inflammation from IBD.

Some of the tests done to diagnose and find a perforation include radiology tests such as a CT scan or an x-ray of the abdomen. In some cases, a perforation is suspected, but the actual site might not be found until exploratory abdominal surgery is done. An x-ray may show abnormalities in the abdomen, such as air under the diaphragm, which is a result of the perforation. A CT scan may be performed because it could show the actual location of the perforation, which will help in devising a treatment plan. If the abdomen is palpated (felt by a physician) during the physical exam, it may feel very rigid.

How a Perforation is Treated

In some cases, a perforation may be treated with antibiotics to counter any potential infection, placement of a nasogastric tube, and bowel rest (nothing to eat or drink). This is conservative management of a perforation and is not commonly done.

More often, surgery is needed to repair the perforation and remove any waste material that has leaked from the intestine into the abdominal cavity. If the contents of the bowel (which is food that is being digested and bile juices) have entered the abdominal cavity, the bacteria that are present in fecal matter may travel through the body and cause a massive and potentially fatal infection (peritonitis).

The type and extent of surgery needed will depend on the severity of the perforation and the condition of the patient. In some cases a portion of the intestine will need to be removed. A temporary ileostomy or colostomy may also be needed to allow the intestine some time to heal.

A Note From Verywell

Bowel perforations are not common, even in people with IBD. Having severe IBD with inflammation that has caused deep ulcers in the intestine is a risk factor for a bowel perforation. Signs and symptoms of a perforation, such as significant abdominal pain, fever, and bleeding, need attention from a physician right away, and may be a reason to call for an ambulance.

Surgery might be needed but it is important to repair the tear quickly to prevent a worse outcome.

Sources:

Langell JT, Mulvihill SJ. "Gastrointestinal perforation and the acute abdomen." Med Clin North Am May 2008;92: 599-625, viii-ix.

Sachar DB, Walfish AE. "Ulcerative colitis." The Merck Manual Dec 2012.

Tomaszczyk M, Zwemer DA. "Spontaneous free perforation of the distal ileum in Crohn's disease: case study." Int Surg 2005 Jul-Aug;90(3 Suppl):S45-S47.

Werbin N, Haddad R, Greenberg R, Karin E, Skornick Y. "Free perforation in Crohn's disease." Isr Med Assoc J 2003 Mar;5:175-177.

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