Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 March 2007
Surgery plays a key role in the management of both acute and, less frequently, chronic intestinal failure. Acute intestinal failure frequently requires surgical treatment when it arises as a consequence of intestinal fistulation or obstruction. In specialised clinical practice approximately 50% of acute intestinal failure is associated with intestinal fistulas and in approximately 50% of patients, this condition arises as part of the natural history or complicating treatment for Crohn's disease. A considerable proportion of such patients have abdominal infection and present complex nutritional and metabolic problems. The most important aspect of the surgical management of patients with acute intestinal failure associated with intra-abdominal infection is management of sepsis, since recovery is unlikely in the presence of active infection. Moreover, effective nutritional support and restoration of body composition is not possible if sepsis remains unresolved. Surgical strategies to deal with intra-abdominal infection may involve percutaneous drainage, laparotomy and resection of fistulating segments of intestine and, when infection is persistent and contamination extensive, laparostomy (a technique in which the abdomen is left open and allowed to heal by secondary intention). Surgical treatment should not only be timely and effective, but also aimed at preventing secondary damage to the small intestine, in order to minimise the risk of short bowel syndrome. In some cases a proximal defunctioning stoma may be required, with prolonged nutritional support, using either home total parenteral nutrition or feeding via the defunctioned distal gut (fistuloclysis), pending restoration of intestinal continuity. The role of surgical treatment for patients with short bowel syndrome is less clear. While surgery is frequently required for the management of complications of short bowel syndrome (including gallstones and possibly peptic ulcer disease), the role of intestinal lengthening and tapering procedures (to increase functional intestinal length), and artificial valves, reversed segments and colonic interposition (to reduce intestinal transit) remains controversial. For some patients with short bowel syndrome and, in particular, those with combined intestinal and hepatic failure, intestinal transplantation may become the treatment of choice as long-term results continue to improve.