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Perforation of the Digestive Tract

by Parswa Ansari, MD

Any of the hollow digestive organs may become perforated (punctured), which causes a release of gastrointestinal contents and leads to shock and death if surgery is not performed immediately.

  • Symptoms include sudden severe pain in the chest or abdomen and an abdomen that is tender when touched.

  • X-rays or computed tomography is used to make the diagnosis.

  • Immediate surgery is needed.

A perforation allows food, digestive juices, or intestinal contents to leak into the abdomen (or sometimes the chest, if the esophagus is perforated). These materials are very irritating and contain bacteria, which cause severe inflammation and infection that are typically fatal if untreated.


Causes vary depending on the location of the perforation, but injury can affect any part of the digestive system. Swallowed foreign bodies usually pass through a person without difficulty but occasionally become stuck and lead to perforation. Foreign bodies inserted through the anus may perforate the rectum.

Some Causes of Perforation

Area of Perforation



Anywhere along the digestive tract


Foreign bodies


Forceful vomiting

This disorder is called Boerhaave syndrome.

Injury caused by a medical procedure

Injury is typically caused by an esophagoscope, balloon dilator, or bougie (a thin cylinder-shaped instrument).

Swallowing strong corrosive material

Typically, battery acid or lye is swallowed.

Stomach or the first segment of the small intestine (duodenum)

Peptic ulcer disease

About one third of people have had no previous ulcer symptoms.

Swallowing strong corrosive material

Such material typically damages the stomach rather than the small intestine.


A blockage that cuts off the blood supply to the intestine (strangulating obstruction)

Possibly acute appendicitis and Meckel diverticulitis


A blockage (obstruction)

Blockage typically results from cancer or impacted stool.


People who are taking prednisone or other drugs that inhibit the immune system (immunosuppressants) are at high risk of developing diverticulitis. However, these people may have few symptoms.

Inflammatory bowel disease (such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn disease)


Perforation of the esophagus, stomach, or duodenum causes sudden severe pain, which may travel (radiate) to the shoulder. The person appears very ill, with rapid heart rate, sweating, and an abdomen that is tender and firm to the touch. Because perforation of the small or large intestine often occurs during the course of another painful condition, and is sometimes walled off, symptoms may be less dramatic and can be mistaken for a worsening of the original problem.

In all types of perforation, the person usually has nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite.

Diagnosis and Treatment

The doctor usually takes x-rays of the chest and abdomen, which may show air that has leaked from the digestive system, a sure sign of perforation. Sometimes, the doctor needs to do a computed tomography (CT) scan of the abdomen to confirm the diagnosis.

If doctors diagnose a perforation, immediate surgery is needed. Doctors decide on which specific operation to do based on the location and cause of the perforation. Doctors' immediate goal is to stop the intestinal contents from spilling into the abdominal or chest cavity. Before surgery, the person receives fluids and antibiotics by vein (intravenously). Sometimes a small tube is placed through the nose into the stomach to suction out stomach juices so they do not flow out the perforation and to relieve the pressure (decompress) in the bowel.

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