Some patients find eating difficult after surgery
Chewing gum may speed recovery after bowel surgery, research suggests.
A US team found chewing gum seemed to speed up the return of normal bowel function, and therefore help shorten hospital stays.
They believe gum may stimulate the same nerves as eating, promoting the release of hormones that activate the gastrointestinal tract.
The study, by Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, California, is published in the journal Archives of Surgery.
Any type of abdominal surgery can cause a marked decrease or stoppage of intestinal function, a condition known as ileus.
This can cause pain, vomiting and abdominal distension, and keep patients in hospital longer.
There is also an increased risk of infection and breathing problems.
The researchers studied 34 patients who underwent surgery to remove a portion of the large intestine - a procedure known as sigmoid colon resection.
Half chewed sugarless gum three times a day following their surgery, the rest did not.
The gum-chewing group left the hospital after an average of 4.3 days, compared with 6.8 days for the control group.
Patients who chewed gum also passed gas sooner, and had their first bowel movement sooner than those who did not.
Some patients who undergo bowel surgery are known not to be able to tolerate food, or even water in the immediate aftermath of their operation.
The researchers argue that getting people to chew gum instead may be cheap and helpful alternative.
Professor Neil Mortensen, an expert adviser to Bowel Cancer UK, said: "This is a small study which needs to be confirmed in bigger trials.
"There is some scientific basis for chewing stimulating gut function and early return of gut function is an important goal of post operative care."
Dr Julie Sharp, of Cancer Research UK, said: "This is an unusual approach and if shown to be effective would be a cheap and simple procedure.
"But the study only looked at 34 patients and more evidence will be needed before chewing gum could be used routinely to aid patient recovery."