Anastomotic Leaks After Intestinal Anastomosis: It's Later Than You Think

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Anastomotic leaks are among the most dreaded complications after colorectal surgery. However, problems with definitions and the retrospective nature of previous analyses have been major limitations. We sought to use a prospective database to define the true incidence and presentation of anastomotic leakage after intestinal anastomosis.


A prospective database of two colorectal surgeons was reviewed over a 10-year period (1995–2004). The incidence of leak by surgical site, timing of diagnosis, method of detection, and treatment was noted. Complications were entered prospectively by a nurse practitioner directly involved in patient care. Standardized criteria for diagnosis were used. A logistic regression model was used to discriminate statistical variation.


A total of 1223 patients underwent resection and anastomosis during the study period. Mean age was 59.1 years. Leaks occurred in 33 patients (2.7%). Diagnosis was made a mean of 12.7 days postoperatively, including four beyond 30 days (12.1%). There was no difference in leak rate by surgeon (3.6% vs. 2.2%; P = 0.08). The leak rate was similar by surgical site except for a markedly increased leak rate with ileorectal anastomosis (P = 0.001). Twelve leaks were diagnosed clinically versus 21 radiographically. Contrast enema correctly identified only 4 of 10 leaks, whereas CT correctly identified 17 of 19. A total of 14 of 33 (42%) patients had their leak diagnosed only after readmission. Fifteen patients required fecal diversion, whereas 18 could be managed nonoperatively.


Anastomotic leaks are frequently diagnosed late in the postoperative period and often after initial hospital discharge, highlighting the importance of prospective data entry and adequate follow-up. CT scan is the preferred diagnostic modality when imaging is required. More than half of leaks can be managed without fecal diversion.

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