For an easier post-surgical recovery, try. . . gum

A new study says a simple stick of chewing gum relieves post-surgical discomfort and shortens hospital stays

December 6, 2021
A packet of chewing gum. The story is about chewing gum minimising gut discomfort after heart surgery and various other surgeries. This image is a representative of chewing gum.
Chewing gum brings back normal muscle contractions of the gut sooner and prevents food blockage in heart surgery patients, a new study says. [Credit: athree23| Pixabay License]

Waking up from surgery is always uncomfortable. There’s that light-headed, groggy feeling. Plus with your digestive system temporarily paralyzed by anesthesia, waves of nausea, constipation and bloating follow.

Now a recent study has endorsed a simple way to ease post-surgical waves of bowel discomfort: chewing gum. While this is the first time the technique is being tested on patients who underwent heart surgery, gum chewing has previously been studied for its effectiveness in easing patient recovery from other surgeries.

The new research suggests heart surgery patients who chewed gum not only felt better, they also went home sooner than those who didn’t, says Dr. Sirivan Seng, a Pennsylvania surgeon who led the study. She presented her results at a recent conference of the Society of Thoracic Surgeons.

Only 0.59% of 341 patients who chewed gum had gut discomfort post-surgery, according to the study. On the other hand, out of 496 patients who didn’t chew gum, 3.43% had problems with digestion. 

The reason gum works, Seng says, is that the gut responds to chewing as if the patient is eating a meal and springs back to life from a motionless state. The gum essentially mimics food – it’s a form of gastric trickery, aptly called sham feeding.

“When you chew, that sends signals to your brain, saying that you have some food coming in. It will trigger the release of certain enzymes and hormones that can help move things,” says Seng.  “We did ask the patients to bring their own gum of their preference. They were all very excited to participate in this research,” Seng chuckles. “It’s a pretty tasty snack.”

Eating and walking after surgery also help the gut return to normal, particularly by minimizing constipation, says Seng. While medications can help, too, they do have some side effects such as dizziness, she says, “so we wanted to look at alternatives that have a low side effect profile such as chewing gum, which a lot of people use in their everyday life.”

Though Seng’s study is the first to evaluate chewing gum’s effectiveness for heart surgery patients, the technique has also been successfully tested on patients recovering from various abdominal surgeries, including cesarean childbirth. 

For mothers who had their deliveries via C-section, gum-chewing reduced their vomiting and nausea post-surgery, and they were discharged much faster, says Dr. Vincenzo Berghella, a Philadelphia-based obstetrician-gynecologist who has analyzed the results of 17 clinical trials that included more than 3,000 women.

Dr. Jai Darvall, an anesthetist in Australia, is currently leading an additional clinical trial involving 700 people that compares the effectiveness of chewing gum versus common medications in alleviating post-surgical vomiting and nausea.

The encouraging results from post-surgery trials so far has led some researchers to wonder if gum could help relieve general indigestion in an everyday context. Though, so far, the evidence is only anecdotal, according to Darvall, it makes him think back to his youth. “When I was a child, and when I used to get motion sick in the car, my mother used to give me a stick of chewing gum and say, chew on this, you’ll feel better,” he says. “And it did help.” 

Berghella is surprised that most hospitals still don’t recommend gum, despite documented evidence that it works.

“Chewing gum is not used as much as it should be. I feel it must be included in the standard post-operative protocol along with regular diet, exercise, and medication,” he says. “It’s very cheap and has no side effects. It could cost as little as a few cents. But it would really save the patients thousands of dollars by shortening hospital stays.”

About the Author

Niranjana Rajalakshmi

Niranjana Rajalakshmi is a veterinarian from South India. After a master’s in veterinary microbiology, she has combined her subject matter expertise with her fervor for storytelling and transitioned as a science journalist. From the three seasons of her city – summer, summerer, and summerest – she thinks moving to NYC will add at least one more season to her life and more flavor to her writing. Niranjana enjoys cooking, singing, and feeling nostalgic about her furry patients.


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