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What is an Anastomotic Leak?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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An anastomotic leak is a breakdown along an anastomosis which causes fluids to leak. Anastomoses are used when a hollow organ such as the intestine needs to be severed and reconnected to allow fluids to flow through it, most commonly because part of the organ needs to be removed. The gastrointestinal tract is not the only site where an anastomosis can be performed; it is also possible to sever and reconnect blood vessels in this way, and to perform similar procedures in the urinary tract. Making a good anastomosis requires skill on the part of the surgeon.

When a surgeon must perform an anastomosis, care is taken at every step of the way. Historically the procedure was done with sutures, although glues and staples may be used in some areas today. Once the surgeon is satisfied that the join is complete, it is tested to confirm that it does not leak, and then the surgical site is closed so the patient can be brought out of anesthesia.

Leaks can develop at the site of an anastomosis for a number of reasons. One cause for an anastomotic leak is a mistake on the part of the surgeon which leaves the join incomplete or weakens it, allowing it to leak under pressure. Another reason is poor wound healing; sometimes surgical sites don't heal well despite the best efforts on the part of the surgeon and when that site is an anastomosis, it can leak. An anastomotic leak can also develop as a result of infection, fluid buildup, or unexpected stress on the join.

This postoperative complication is a known risk when an anastomosis is performed and patients are usually monitored for the early signs of a leak. Patients can report pain, bloating, or heat which suggests that an infection may be occurred. A medical imaging study can be used to diagnose the leak, usually with the assistance of a tracer. If an anastomosis is leaking, the tracer will leak out as well and show up on x-ray in places where it should not be.

Treatment options for an anastomotic leak vary, depending on the nature of the leak and the location. Sometimes it is necessary to perform a surgical repair to correct the leak. For some patients, this may require the temporary placement of a tube for drainage to allow the site to heal before performing surgery to repair the damaged anastomosis. In other cases, simply draining the area of excess fluid relieves the stress and allows the body to heal so that the anastomotic leak resolves.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon232115 — On Nov 29, 2011

My dad actually died after this surgery.

By DNA50 — On Apr 10, 2011

@g00dquestion- It is actually very dangerous. My father had this procedure done and was told that the risk of infection was not only high; his odds of surviving such an infection were very low. His doctor mentioned that they had a new way of doing it that lowered the chance of anastomotic leakage a great deal.

By g00dquestion — On Apr 09, 2011

My father has ulcerative colitis, and apparently anastamosis is now recommended as a treatment for ulcerative colitis -- at least that's what his doctors told us. I'm kind of worried though, since it seems that this is a dangerous area of the body for such a procedure. Wouldn’t it have a very high risk of infection?

By DantheMan — On Apr 07, 2011

@anon136379-My sister had an anastamosis done a few years ago and the doctors were able to drain the area and it did heal on its own. They told her at the time that there was no set healing time for this because each person’s body will react differently to the leak. It took her about 60 days to get back to normal and they said that was about average. Hope this helps!

By anon136379 — On Dec 22, 2010

If an anastomosis leak is found, and surgeons deem that a repair op is not a good idea, will it heal on it's own? and if so, how long is it likely to take? Thanks.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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