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Bowel Perforation

A Bowel Perforation Is Rare With IBD -- But It Is Serious


Updated June 16, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Bowel perforation

The severe ulceration that can occur in the colon because of IBD could -- rarely -- lead to a perforation.

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Perforation of the small or large bowel is a serious and potentially fatal complication of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). A bowel perforation is a surgical emergency, and needs immediate treatment to prevent complications such as infection or death.

How Common Is Bowel Perforation?

A perforation due to IBD is actually rare. Perforation due to Crohn's disease is estimated to be between 1 and 3 percent over the course of the disease. Perforations are more common, however, during a first flare-up of ulcerative colitis, especially when that flare-up is extremely severe. A perforation may also occur when long standing disease causes the wall of the intestine to become very weak and subsequently develop a tear.

Symptoms of an Intestinal Perforation

The symptoms of a perforation can include:
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Nausea
  • Rectal bleeding, sometimes heavy
  • Vomiting

Diagnosing a Bowel Perforation

A perforation is diagnosed based on the history and physical examination of the patient, by radiology (a CT scan or an x-ray of the abdomen), or sometimes not until exploratory surgery is done. An x-ray may show abnormalities in the abdomen, such as air under the diaphragm as a result of the perforation. A CT scan may be performed because it could show the actual location of the perforation, which will help in devising a treatment plan. If the abdomen is palpated it may feel very rigid.

How a Perforation is Treated

In some cases, a perforation may be treated with antibiotics to counter any infection, placement of a nasogastric tube, and bowel rest (nothing to eat or drink).

More often, surgery is needed to repair the perforation and remove any waste material that has leaked from the intestine into the abdominal cavity. If the contents of the bowel have entered the abdominal cavity, the bacteria that are present in fecal matter may travel through the body and cause a massive and potentially fatal infection (peritonitis).

The type and extent of surgery needed will depend on the severity of the perforation and the condition of the patient. In some cases a portion of the intestine will need to be removed. A temporary ileostomy or colostomy may also be needed to allow the intestine some time to heal.


Langell JT, Mulvihill SJ. "Gastrointestinal perforation and the acute abdomen." Med Clin North Am May 2008;92: 599-625, viii-ix. 19 Nov 2013.

Sachar DB, Walfish AE. "Ulcerative colitis." The Merck Manual Dec 2012. 19 Nov 2013.

Tomaszczyk M, Zwemer DA. "Spontaneous free perforation of the distal ileum in Crohn's disease: case study." Int Surg 2005 Jul-Aug;90(3 Suppl):S45-S47. 19 Nov 2013.

Werbin N, Haddad R, Greenberg R, Karin E, Skornick Y. "Free perforation in Crohn's disease." Isr Med Assoc J 2003 Mar;5:175-177. 19 Nov 2013.

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