Adhesions: Definitions, Symptoms & Surgery

Overview

Endometriosis is the most common cause of adhesions located in the pelvic and abdominal cavity for women. Previously the most common cause of adhesions was thought to be pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). Endometriosis adhesions cause scarring and fibrous bands to form, which contain endometriosis glands, stroma, and inflammation, as opposed to more typical adhesions caused by repeated surgery, which contain only fibrous bands. The most common endometriosis adhesions form and cause scarring within the ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, small intestine, and pelvic sidewall, between the bowel, rectum and recto-vaginal septum. These “sticky” adhesions can cause the space between two distinct organs, to fill with scar tissue and inflammatory enzymes, this ultimately can cause pain in the pelvic and abdominal cavity. For these reasons, it is important to clearly define adhesions, state their role in endometriosis development, and discuss treatment options for patients who feel discomfort from endometriosis adhesions in their day-to day life.

What are adhesions?

Adhesions by definition are fibrous bands of scar tissue. What makes this tissue concerning, lies in its ability to fuse together two different tissues that would normally not do so. Normally this occurs in the form of thick fibrous bands of tissue, but it can also present as thin sheets.

Adhesions by definition are fibrous bands of scar tissue
Endometriosis adhesion formation can commonly cause the normal posterior cul-de-sac (tissue space between the uterine wall and rectum) to disappear, as the posterior uterine wall and anterior rectum and sigmoid colon are fused together via a thick fibrous band of tissue.

What are abdominal adhesions?

The organs that are inside the abdomen and pelvic cavity have a very special characteristic in that they are slippery, shiny and are constantly moving. Adhesions are the bands that form between organs and limit their movement and function, thus causing pain. In more medical terms, it is defined by the newly formed scarring between peritoneum surfaces. These adhesions can spread onto the intestines and are thus the leading cause of bowel obstruction, causing such symptoms as small stool production, constipation, and nausea.

How do adhesions form?

Most adhesions form in response to a tissue disturbance that triggers the body’s repairing mechanism, due to our innate desire to maintain homeostasis. There are a variety of ways in which this mechanism can be triggered, leading to adhesion formation. Below are just a few listed:

  • Superficial-surface adhesion
    Superficial-surface adhesion causing a fibrous band to span within the pelvic cavity.
    Adhesions secondary to surgery: One of the most common causes of adhesions is previous surgery. Remember, adhesions form due to the body’s natural desire to maintain homeostasis (balance). Surgery is not something the body is used to, so it is only natural that adhesions may form during procedures. Keep in mind, surgery should only be performed upon patient consent and as a last resort, if other treatment options are not beneficial to the patient. The whole point of conducting surgery is so that it will most benefit the patient and relieve their symptoms. However, this does not mean that complications cannot arise and risks are not involved, one of which is adhesion formation. For these reasons, it is important to discuss with your doctor if surgery is the right choice for you, and if so, talk with your surgeon about the ways in which they ensure minimal risk and a minimally invasive surgical approach.
  • Adhesions secondary to infection: Infectious disease can often lead to adhesion formation. For example, the infection that causes pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) can often lead to adhesion formation within the pelvic cavity, particularly within the fallopian tubes. These adhesions can be a cause of concern, as they can increase a woman’s risk of infertility and ectopic pregnancy.
  • Adhesions secondary to innate pathology (i.e. endometriosis): When we say adhesions caused by pathology, we are talking about adhesions forming due to a much larger disease and concern. Endometriosis is just one example of such. Endometriosis adhesions, composed of ectopic endometrial tissue, inflammatory enzyme and old, pooled menstrual blood, can form throughout the pelvic cavity. These adhesions can be a cause of concern as their formation can increase a patient’s chances of not only experiencing the symptoms (painful periods, heavy menstrual period, etc.) of the underlying disease, but they can also put the patient at greater risk to adopt the congruent disorders such as infertility and bowel dysfunction or even obstruction.

What forms of surgery commonly lead to pelvic adhesion formation?

Pelvic adhesions after a C-section: Following a c-section, it is not uncommon for adhesions to form in the bladder with a band-like tightness that spans to the anterior wall of the uterus. This can cause difficulty or pain upon urination.

Adhesions c-section surgery
Adhesions secondary to endometriosis encasing the ureter, which is not uncommon to find following c-section surgery.

Pelvic adhesions after a myomectomy: A myomectomy is the removal of fibroids. Even upon laparoscopic procedures, adhesions can form along the anterior and posterior uterine wall. In fact, it has been noted that bleeding can often arise upon posterior myomectomy procedures. For this reason, it is crucial that you find a surgeon who will actively work to minimize bleeding through meticulous skill and experience in order to ensure a reduced risk for further adhesion formation and loss of blood.

Pelvic adhesions after a hysterectomy: Even when the uterus is removed, adhesions can form upon the surrounding reproductive and pelvic organs, ranging from the ovaries to the bowels and bladder.

What are the symptoms when pelvic adhesions exist?

Pelvic adhesions can vary in symptoms, depending on their severity and where they are located throughout the body. However, physicians usually attribute these symptoms to the conditions and diseases that adhesions cause, as opposed to the adhesions themselves, leading to misdiagnosis or inefficient treatment. The most common universal symptom that adhesions can cause is pain due to pulling on nerves. This occurs as the adhesions will glue together organs due to their “sticky” quality, causing overlapping and pressure on specific nerves and tissue within the area. Other symptoms vary depending on the location of adhesion development include:

  • Above the liver, involving the diaphragm (the membrane below the lungs): Pain upon deep breathing.
  • Bowel: Painful bowel movements, cramps, constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloatedness, nausea, vomiting, decreased appetite, weight loss, difficulty passing stool (manual dis-impaction etc.) Vagina & Uterus: Pain upon intercourse or upon menstruation.
  • Any location: None. Remember, not all adhesions cause pain and not all pain is caused by adhesions.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, and feel that pelvic adhesions are a probable cause of your pain, then you should alert your gynecologist and set up an appointment to meet.

Endometriosis adhesions in the pelvic and lower abdominal cavity
Endometriosis adhesions in the pelvic and lower abdominal cavity can sometimes infiltrate such vital organs as the ureter and uterine artery. When this occurs patients can experience such symptoms as neuropathy (pain due to nerve damage) and bowel dysfunction.

Endometriosis Adhesions

Why are endometriosis adhesions unique?

Endometriosis adhesions are unique and are different than any other form of adhesions, they are often described as a sort of super glue. This is because they possess a certain “sticky” component that lends them to fuse together other tissues and connect organs, eliminating what is referred to as the dissection line during surgery. Normally, this space is clearly defined and separates adjacent organs, but in the case of endometriosis, it is remarkably difficult to distinguish the line of tissue that is supposed to separate said organs. The loss of normal surgical planes can change the contour of an organ, such as the rectum, uterus, and ovary, making surgery very difficult.

How do endometriosis adhesions progress?

The only thing concretely known about endometriosis adhesions is that they are “alive,” meaning they contain glands and stroma with endometriosis tissue within the adhesions that are reactive to estrogen. These adhesions can be understood when one imagines the leakage of endometriosis material from a chocolate cyst (endometrioma). The melted chocolate material, which is a combination of pooled menstrual blood, inflammatory enzymes, and endometriosis tissues, produced from an endometrioma fuses organs together by forming a layer of “sticky” glue-like tissue. Thus the endometriosis tissue contained within this material can be thought as being responsible for progressing into more advanced and severe adhesions that fuse organs together in extreme cases. When organs are fused together they cannot function well. This leads to such issues as rectal constriction, causing constipation, or retroperitoneal infiltration, leading to retroperitoneal fibrosis. This can also cause severe sharp pain with intercourse or inability to tolerate it with a deep pulling sensation. Other inner anatomical abnormalities that can arise from this adhesions, include blocking of the ureter and bowels and deep cul-de-sac scarring and obliteration. In this sense, endometriosis adhesions are unique and atypical in comparison with the adhesions that form due to surgery.

Mechanism of Adhesions

What are the steps of endometriosis adhesion progression?

  1. Peritoneum Invasion: During early endometriosis, the primary organ affected is the peritoneum (the lining of the abdomen). However, it is unknown the exact cause leading to the progression of stage one endometriosis and further development. While several theories have been put forth, ranging from Sampson’s theory of retrograde menstruation to the stem cell theory of endometriosis, it is likely that there may not be one singular cause, but rather a multitude of mechanisms working alongside one another. Either way, small patches and lesions of endometriosis tissue within the peritoneum is a common anomaly in cases of early endometriosis development.
  2. Endometrioma: In more severe cases of endometriosis, it is not uncommon to find endometriosis tissue on the ovaries. This collection of endometriosis can cause the formation of an ovarian cyst called an endometrioma, which also composes of pooled menstrual blood and inflammatory enzymes. This “chocolate cyst,” termed after the brown serous fluid it consists of, is then susceptible to leakage during one’s period and thus further spreading of endometriosis within the pelvic cavity. The contents and ongoing menstruation of endometriosis tissue contained within this leakage material, can then go on and form adhesions throughout the pelvic cavity.
  3. Deep infiltrating endometriosis: When the leakage of this material spreads throughout the pelvic cavity, endometriosis adhesions will grow and spread. These adhesions will serve as a “glue” holding inflamed pelvic organs in place with one another until it reaches such extreme cases as frozen pelvis. This can cause such symptoms as chronic pelvic pain, killer cramps, and pain upon sexual intercourse.

Where can endometriosis commonly form?

Most commonly endometriosis adhesions will adhere to the pelvic cavity due to their uterine origin. Below are a few common organ sites within the pelvic cavity that endometriosis adhesions adhere to:

Adhesions formed secondary to endometriosis
Adhesions formed secondary to endometriosis (outside of the uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes).
  • Uterus muscle layer or serosa layer (adenomyosis)
  • Fallopian tubes
  • Ovaries (endometrioma)
  • Bladder
  • Ureter
  • Cul-de-sac (both posterior and anterior)

Organs within the abdominal cavity are also commonly affected, particularly in cases of bowel endometriosis, which is seen in nearly one in every five endometriosis patients. Common sites within the abdominal cavity that endometriosis adhesions adhere to include:

A fibrous band of adhesion tissue
A fibrous band of adhesion tissue spanning from the ovary to the uterine wall.
  • Peritoneum
  • Rectum
  • Colon (large intestine)
  • Appendix
  • Ileum (final section of small intestine)

In rare instances, endometriosis implants and adhesions can incorporate a variety of other locations, which include:

  • Cervix (excluding endometrial layer)
  • Vagina
  • Nerves
  • Lungs
  • Much More, even the brain
Endometriosis Adhesions Bladder

How can endometriosis lead to retroperitoneal fibrosis?

Retroperitoneal fibrosis is when fibrous adhesions form in the space behind the peritoneum (lining of the abdomen). This can often be caused by endometriosis adhesions infiltrating the peritoneum and spreading through the wall. When this occurs, the adhesions can continue to spread and are often associated with involvement of the ureter and deep nerves. This will cause such symptoms as neuropathy (pain due to nerve damage), particularly to the legs and below the lower abdomen. In these cases, it is important that these adhesions are meticulously removed through “cold” excision surgery, using minimal to no electrical energy. In this way, the pelvic and abdominal cavity is repaired/restored and reconstructed back to normalcy.

Diagnosing & Treating

How are adhesions diagnosed?

Although adhesions are not a formal medical diagnosis, we recommend if you have these symptoms you should see a doctor to find out the underlying pathology. One of the complicated components about adhesions is the fact that the underlying pathology causing them cannot be identified by any simple form of diagnostic exam. In order to identify the underlying pathology behind such adhesions, a biopsy sample must be taken during laparoscopic surgery. This specimen must then be sent to a pathology lab, where a pathologist will observe the sample under a microscope and provide a report with an official diagnosis.

What are some ways pelvic adhesion pain can be relieved?

While adhesions must be diagnosed and treated medically, treatment can vary depending on the severity and location of the adhesion formation, as well as the bigger issue that the adhesion is causing. However, because many adhesions do not cause any symptoms at all, surgery does not become necessary unless an emergency becomes evident. In fact, adhesions often improve without surgery, and even in instances where mild pain arrives, a physician will more commonly treat the symptoms then go to such extensive measures as surgery.

How can diet play a role in pelvic adhesion symptom relief?

The low FODMAP diet
The low FODMAP diet that can be used to relieve bowel symptoms.

While a diet certainly cannot rid a patient of their pelvic and abdominal adhesions, it can help play a role in symptom relief. Because abdominal adhesions can implant on the bowels, they can often mask themselves as other disorders, causing symptoms similar to those of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This can include nausea, constipation, small bowel production, and bowel obstruction. For these reasons, it can be helpful to adopt lifestyle and diet changes that can help relieve such symptoms. To see more information on this, go to our Bowel Surgery page and look at the low FODMAP diet listed under the treatment section.

How are adhesions surgically treated?

The two most common forms of surgically treating pelvic and abdominal adhesions are laparoscopy and laparotomy, which differ primarily in terms of invasiveness.

  • removing endometriosis adhesions
    The “gold standard” for removing endometriosis adhesions is through deep-excision surgery, with minimal electricity or heat used.
    Laparoscopy: In this minimally invasive surgical technique, a doctor makes several small incisions into the abdomen, which is then inflated with gas. A small camera, termed a laparoscope, is then inserted through one of these small incisions to get a full view of the abdomen and pelvic cavity in order to confirm that adhesions are present. Other tools are then inserted through the two or three other incisions so that the adhesions can be cut and released, a process known as adhesiolysis.
  • Laparotomy: This is an open surgical technique in which a large incision is made from the navel (belly button) down the abdomen, giving a surgeon full access and viewing of the abdominal and pelvic organs. This is a much more invasive technique and thus presents more risk for a difficult recovery. For this reason, in most cases of adhesions, laparoscopy is the preferred form of surgery, but can only be performed in the hands of an experienced and skilled surgeon. It is important to remember that surgery in itself can cause adhesions and there are few proven methods to prevent them.

Our Approach

What is our approach to surgically treating pelvic adhesions?

excision of adhesions
Following the excision of adhesions, a surgeon must be able to repair, reconstruct and restore normal anatomical function. This is the bowel reconstructed, after adhesiolysis.

We at SEC are committed to performing laparoscopic surgery. We believe that a patient’s best chance of a healthy recovery and symptom relief is through minimally invasive surgery. For these reasons, we perform excision surgery to remove all suspected adhesions as an initial step in surgery. Additionally, we are able to better view and thus remove endometriosis adhesions through our patented ABC technique. Our method differs from traditional adhesiolysis in that we firmly believe that both endometriosis adhesions and their surrounding scar tissue must be meticulously surgically removed through excision. This ensures that adhesions are fully removed individually, including the tissue underlying beneath the surface. After decades of training and experience and with the utilization of a team surgical approach, we at SEC are able to provide a highly thorough and productive surgery, which includes repairing, reconstructing, and restoring the organs that were operated on in a procedure such as deep-excision of adhesions, including the bowels and bladder.

Superficial-surface adhesions within the pelvic cavity
Superficial-surface adhesions within the pelvic cavity, pre and post injection of our patented ABC contrast. As it can be seen, the contrast makes the endometriosis scar tissue and inflammation from the adhesion much more visible and thus easier to remove.

If you or your doctor feel that you could be at risk of having pelvic adhesions and have had constantly recurring pain and symptoms, please feel free to call us to discuss your case. Pelvic adhesions due to endometriosis can be a very grueling condition to endure, and even more so one to treat. For these reasons, we have worked tirelessly to improve upon our techniques in order to ensure that our patients receive the conservative and definitive surgery that they both need and deserve.

Our office is located on 5th Ave and 68th NY, NY.
You may call us at 212-988-1444 or have your case reviewed by clicking here.

 

REFERENCES

  1. Endometriosis Foundation of America https://www.endofound.org/endometriosis.
  2. Vafa Shayani, Claudine Siegert, and Philip Favia. “The Role of Laparoscopic Adhesiolysis in the Treatment of Patients with Chronic Abdominal Pain or Recurrent Bowel Obstruction.” Journal of the Society of Laproendoscopic Surgeons (JSLS). 2002 Apr-Jun; 6(2): 111–114. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3043421/
  3. Brüggmann et al. “Intra-abdominal Adhesions Definition, Origin, Significance in Surgical Practice, and Treatment Options.” Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2010 Nov; 107(44): 769–775. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2992017/
  4. Judith S. Moore., Endometriosis in patients with irritable bowel syndrome: Specific symptomatic and demographic profile, and response to the low FODMAP diet. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Volume 57, Issue 2 April 2017: p. 201-205. //onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ajo.12594/abstract
  5. Reich Harry., Laparoscopic Surgery for Adhesiolysis. Attending Physician, Wyoming Valley Health Care System, Wilkes-Barre, PA Corresponding Author: Harry Reich, M.D. https://www.adlap.com/PDF/adhesion.pdf
  6. Seckin, T., The Doctor Will See You Now: Recognizing and Treating Endometriosis. 2016.

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