Taking traditional Chinese medication (TCM) orally for adhesive small bowel obstruction (SBO)

SBO is one of the most common emergent complications of general surgery. Intra-abdominal adhesions are the most frequent complication of abdominal surgery. SBO due to postoperative intra-abdominal adhesions is associated with a high rate of rehospitalisation and huge costs. Thus, non-operative management is preferred. Chinese herbal medicine is frequently used to treat adhesive SBO in China. This review examined five randomised trials with five different Chinese herbal medicines, involving a total of 664 participants. All trials were conducted and published in China. None of the trials mentioned adverse effects. The methodological limitations in these studies are quite obvious, and any conclusions based on their results should be made with caution. This systematic review did not find sufficient evidence to support the objective efficacy and safety of TCM for adhesive SBO patients. Further high-quality trials evaluating oral TCM for adhesive SBO are urgently needed.

Authors' conclusions: 

Although many studies have assessed the use of TCM products for adhesive SBO, most were excluded from this review due to their methodological limitations. This systematic review did not find sufficient evidence to support the objective efficacy and safety of TCM for patients with adhesive SBO. The positive evidence should be interpreted with caution given the insufficient number of studies with large sample sizes, the absence of well-designed, high-quality trials, and the lack of safety information. Therefore, further studies with larger sample sizes and high-quality, randomised, and controlled trials are necessary to produce more accurate and meaningful data on the efficacy of Chinese herbal medicines for adhesive SBO.

Read the full abstract...

Small bowel obstruction (SBO) is one of the most common emergent complications of general surgery. Intra-abdominal adhesions are the leading cause of SBO. Because surgery can induce new adhesions, non-operative management is preferred in the absence of signs of peritonitis or strangulation. Oral traditional Chinese herbal medicine has long been used as a non-operative therapy to treat adhesive SBO in China. Many controlled trials have been conducted to investigate its therapeutic value in resolving adhesive SBO.


The aim of this review was to assess the efficacy and safety of oral traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for adhesive small bowel obstruction.

Search strategy: 

We searched the following databases, without regard to language or publishing restrictions: the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, EMBASE, Chinese Biomedical Database (CBM), China National Knowledge Infrastructure/Chinese Academic Journals full-text Database (CNKI), and VIP (a full-text database of Chinese journals). The searches were conducted in November 2011.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials and quasi-randomised controlled trials comparing Chinese medicines administered orally, via the gastric canal, or both with a placebo or conventional therapy in participants diagnosed with adhesive SBO were considered. We also considered trials of TCM (oral administration, gastric tube perfusion, or both) plus conventional therapy compared with conventional therapy alone for patients with adhesive SBO. Studies addressing the safety and efficacy of oral traditional Chinese medicinal agents in the treatment of adhesive SBO were also considered.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two authors collected the data independently. We assessed the risk of bias according to the following methodological criteria: random sequence generation, allocation concealment, blinding, incomplete outcome data, selective outcome reporting and other sources of bias. Dichotomous data are presented as risk ratios (OR) and 95% confidence intervals (CI); continuous outcomes are presented as mean differences (MD) and 95% CIs. The data analyses were carried out using Review Manager 5.1. For cases in which necessary information was not reported in the paper, we contacted the primary authors for additional information.

Main results: 

Five randomised trials involving 664 participants were analysed. Five different herbal medicines were tested in these trials, including Huo-Xue-Tong-Fu decoction, Xiao-Cheng-Qi-Tang decoction, a combination of Xiao-Cheng-Qi-Tang and Si-Jun-Zi-Tang decoctions, Chang-Nian-Lian-Song-Jie-Tang decoction, and Fufang-Da-Cheng-Qi-Tang decoction. There were variations in the tested herbal compositions and methods of medicine administration. The main outcomes reported in the trials were effects on abdominal pain, abdominal distension, constipation defection, time of first defecation after treatment, and reoperation rate during the course of the disease. Secondary outcomes selected for this review were not available, including complications such as small bowel perfusion (bowel resection, system complications, and other possible complications), length of hospital stay, cost of hospitalisation, and time from admission to surgical intervention. The results of five trials showed that patients receiving TCM combined with conventional therapy seemed to have improved outcomes compared with patients receiving conventional treatment alone (OR 4.24, 95% CI 2.83 to 6.36).

However, we cannot conclusively determine the efficacy of TCM in this review due to inadequate reporting, low methodological quality, and the prevalence of various biases in the reviewed studies. Furthermore, because none of the reviewed trials discussed adverse events, we could not evaluate the safety of TCM for adhesive SBO patients. All trials were conducted and published in China.