Chewing gum can prevent gut complications after heart surgery

CHICAGO, Ill. — Heart surgery can sometimes lead to gut issues for recovering patients however, a new study has discovered an unlikely way to kickstart the digestive system during post-op — bubble gum. Researchers with The Society of Thoracic Surgeons say chewing sugarless gum after heart surgery can help patients feel better and even get them out of the hospital faster.

“Prior to our study, there were no previously published studies looking at the use of chewing gum in cardiac surgery patients, but we found that it may accelerate the return of gut function,” says Sirivan S. Seng, MD, a resident physician at Crozer-Chester Medical Center in Pennsylvania, in a media release. “This easy-to-implement intervention can be used with almost all patients in the postoperative setting.”

Dr. Seng’s team examined over 800 patients at Crozer-Chester Medical Center who either had elective open heart surgery, an aortic valve replacement, or mitral valve repair/replacement during their study. From that group, 341 patients chewed sugarless gum after surgery, which doctors performed between 2017 and 2020. The other 496 patients had surgery between 2013 and 2016 and did not chew gum following their procedures.

What can chewing gum prevent in post-op?

For patients who have heart surgery, there is a small chance they may develop a condition called postoperative ileus. This is a lack of normal muscle contractions in the intestines which causes food to build up. The problem can also lead to a painful blockage in the digestive tract.

Results of the study show that only two gum-chewing patients (0.59%) developed a case of postoperative ileus. Meanwhile, researchers found 17 patients from the no-gum group (3.43%) developed the condition after heart surgery.

Overall, study authors say this temporary shutdown of the digestive system is one of the more common complications that happens after heart surgery — occurring in around five percent of patients. Ileus can also cause abdominal cramps, bloating, nausea, vomiting, constipation, and a difficulty adjusting to eating a normal diet again. When this happens, it not only causes discomfort for surgery patients, but also lengthens their stay in the hospital.

“An underappreciated concern after cardiac surgery is the development of an ileus or a slow return of bowel function,” says Rakesh C. Arora, MD, PhD, from St. Boniface Hospital, who did not take part in the study.

“The notion that something as simple as chewing gum after heart surgery could minimize this problem is highly appealing. In hundreds of patients undergoing cardiac surgery who were given one piece of gum to chew after recovering off the ventilator, fewer than 1 in 100 patients developed an ileus. This was a striking nearly 5-fold reduction compared to the historical average. This anticipated study will be highly discussed with much to chew on!”

So how does chewing gum kickstart the gut?

The team explains that chewing gum stimulates the intestines by tricking them into thinking that food is entering the body. Doctors call this “sham feeding,” which they define as any action which mimics eating but doesn’t actually lead to digestion.

“Given the minimal risk and extremely trivial cost of this intervention, the incorporation of chewing gum following cardiac surgery should be strongly considered as a new standard of care,” Dr. Seng concludes. “Talk to your surgeon about considering using chewing gum after surgery. Almost everyone can benefit from an affordable, tasty, and refreshing pack of gum.”

Researchers presented their findings at the 18th Annual Perioperative and Critical Care Conference.

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