Chewing gum after heart surgery could help patients avoid later digestive issues: study

TORONTO — Chewing gum after heart surgery could make the recovery process easier and help patients avoid digestive issues during recovery, new research says.

“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,” said Pennsylvania-based physician Dr. Sirivan S. Seng, who was one of the researchers involved in the study, in a news release.

Researchers examined over 800 patients from a Pennsylvania hospital receiving cardiac surgery. The research was presented at the 18th Annual Perioperative and Critical Care Conference from The Society of Thoracic Surgeons on Wednesday.

The cohort was made up of two groups of patients. In one group, 341 patients who underwent heart surgery between 2017 and 2020 chewed a piece of sugarless gum after their procedure. The second group involved 496 patients who received heart surgeries between 2013 and 2016 and did not chew any gum after their procedure.

After heart surgery, some patients experience issues with their digestive system that prevent them from clearing out their intestines through bowel movements, causing blockages in their intestines. This is known as postoperative ileus and can lead to cramps, bloating, nausea and constipation.

Only two patients who had chewed gum after their surgery had developed postoperative ileus, representing 0.59 per cent of the group. On the other hand, postoperative ileus affected 3.43 per cent, or 17 patients, from the group that did not chew any gum.

Researchers say that chewing gum could stimulate the digestive system by tricking it to believe that food is coming. This is a process known as “sham feeding” and is thought to be the key to avoiding postoperative ileus.

“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,” said Seng.

Previous studies looking into the effects of chewing gum after other types of surgery have found similar results. In 2020, researchers in England conducted a meta-analysis of 16 studies looking into the effects of chewing gum after colorectal surgery and found that gum was associated with a lower risk of postoperative ileus.

Another meta-analysis from 2015 looking into 81 studies involving people who have had bowel surgery or caesarean section found that there was a “small difference” in the length of hospital stays between patients who chewed gum and patients who did not.​ 

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