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What is Radiation Enteritis? Print E-mail
Written by Gary Presant, MD   
Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Radiation enteritis is a complication of radiation therapy to the abdomen or pelvis. Radiation therapy is sometimes used to treat certain diseases, especially cancers. In addition to killing cancer deep in the body, it damages the healthy tissue around it, like the bowels. The damage may occur at the time of treatment or take many years to develop.

What is going on in the body?

Radiation therapy is a form of energy carefully directed at cancerous tissue. This energy is powerful enough to kill cancer cells deep in the body. All tissues overlying the cancer also are affected. For instance, radiation therapy used to treat colon cancer, ovarian cancer, or prostate cancer often severely damages healthy tissue, like the bowels.

The bowels, also called the intestines, are very sensitive to radiation therapy. As a result, the blood supply to the bowels can become impaired. With a poor blood supply, the affected bowel will be weakened. In fact, that part of the bowel may die.

Scarring of the bowel sometimes happens. When this occurs, the bowel will not work properly. Intestinal obstructions may form as a result of the scar tissue.

What are the causes and risks of the disease?
Radiation enteritis is caused by radiation treatment to the abdomen and pelvis.

What are the treatments for the disease?
In acute cases of radiation enteritis, diarrhea and nausea can often be controlled with medications. Not treating the diarrhea effectively can result in dehydration. A person may have to be admitted to the hospital in severe cases. A diet that is low in fiber is helpful. Resting will help the person conserve energy while the bowel is healing.

In chronic cases, the person may have to have surgery to remove blockages or scar tissue in the bowel. Diarrhea is likely to be a long-term problem. Medications, such as psyllium, will give the stool a firmer consistency. The person will have to focus on eating foods that do not make the diarrhea worse or cause cramping.

What are the side effects of the treatments?
Bowel surgery is major surgery and requires a recovery period. Repairing a bowel opening may also entail surgery. Other therapy is designed to improve quality of life and does not generally have significant side effects.

What happens after treatment for the disease?
The person will be monitored for return of symptoms or development of new problems. Follow-up visits will include discussing any new symptoms. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare provider.

How is the disease monitored?
Careful follow-up is the most effective way to monitor for the development of radiation enteritis. There is no routine test done that can diagnose this condition. Treating the symptoms before the person becomes weakened is important. Reporting symptoms right away to the healthcare provider will help prevent problems.


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