What is the pathophysiology of intestinal perforation?

Updated: Jul 24, 2020
  • Author: Samy A Azer, MD, PhD, MPH; Chief Editor: John Geibel, MD, MSc, DSc, AGAF  more...
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Normally, the stomach is relatively free of bacteria and other microorganisms because of its high intraluminal acidity. Most persons who experience abdominal trauma have normal gastric functions and are not at risk of bacterial contamination following gastric perforation. However, those who have a preexisting gastric problem are at risk of peritoneal contamination with gastric perforation.

Leakage of acidic gastric juice into the peritoneal cavity often results in profound chemical peritonitis. If the leakage is not closed and food particles reach the peritoneal cavity, chemical peritonitis is succeeded by gradual development of bacterial peritonitis. Patients may be free of symptoms for several hours between the initial chemical peritonitis and the later occurrence of bacterial peritonitis.

The microbiology of the small bowel changes from its proximal to its distal part. Few bacteria populate the proximal part of the small bowel, whereas the distal part of the small bowel (the jejunum and ileum) contains aerobic organisms (eg, Escherichia coli) and a higher percentage of anaerobic organisms (eg, Bacteroides fragilis). Thus, the likelihood of intra-abdominal or wound infection is increased with perforation of the distal bowel.

The presence of bacteria in the peritoneal cavity stimulates an influx of acute inflammatory cells. The omentum and viscera tend to localize the site of inflammation, producing a phlegmon. (This usually occurs in perforation of the large bowel.) The resulting hypoxia in the area facilitates growth of anaerobes and produces impairment of bactericidal activity of granulocytes, which leads to increased phagocytic activity of granulocytes, degradation of cells, hypertonicity of fluid forming the abscess, osmotic effects, shift of more fluids into the abscess area, and enlargement of the abdominal abscess. If untreated, bacteremia, generalized sepsis, multiorgan failure, and shock may occur.

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