Clinical and Subclinical Leaks After Low Colorectal Anastomosis: A Clinical and Radiologic Study

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This study was designed to examine the natural history of subclinical leaks and their effect on bowel function and quality of life and to evaluate water-soluble contrast enema features that predict anastomotic healing after leaks.


Consecutive patients who underwent low rectal anastomosis were followed up postoperatively for leaks. All leaks were confirmed radiologically with CT scanning and water-soluble contrast enema imaging. Water-soluble contrast enemas were serially repeated to identify healing. Characteristics on initial water-soluble contrast enema were correlated with observed healing. Postoperatively, patients were required to fill in a quality of life and a bowel function questionnaire.


A total of 138 patients underwent low rectal anastomosis procedures with a median follow-up period of 26 (interquartile range, 19-37) months. There were 23 documented leaks of which 13 (9 percent) presented clinically and 10 (8 percent) presented subclinically. Ileostomy closure was possible in 4 of 13 (30 percent) patients with a clinical leak and all 10 (100 percent) patients with a subclinical leak. Median quality of life scores were lower for patients with clinical leaks and no ileostomy closure (P= 0.03). Bowel function for subclinical leak patients and clinical leak patients with ileostomy closure were similarly impaired. The presence of a cavity (P= 0.01) and a stricture (P= 0.01) at the anastomotic site were unfavorable radiologic features associated with nonhealing.


Subclinical leaks are more benign in their natural history compared with clinical leaks. Quality of life and bowel function is no better in patients with a subclinical leak compared with patients with a clinical leak who have ileostomy closure. Anastomotic leaks may resolve if favorable radiologic features are present.

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