Radiation therapy uses high-powered x-rays, particles, or radioactive seeds to kill cancer cells. The therapy may also damage healthy cells in the lining of the intestines.
People who have radiation therapy to the belly or pelvic area are at risk. These may include people with cervical, pancreatic, prostate, uterine, or colon and rectal cancer.
Symptoms may vary, depending on which part of the intestines received the radiation. Symptoms can also be different if you have chemotherapy at the same time as the radiation.
Symptoms may occur during or shortly after radiation treatment (called acute radiation enteritis), or long after the treatment.
Changes in bowel movements may include:
Other symptoms can include:
Most of the time, these symptoms get better within 2 - 3 months after radiation treatment ends.
When symptoms become long-term (chronic), other problems may include:
The health care provider will do a physical exam and ask questions about your medical history.
Tests may include:
Starting a low-fiber diet on the first day of radiation treatment may help you avoid problems. The best choice of foods depends on your symptoms.
Some things can make symptoms worse, and should be avoided. These include:
Foods and drinks that are better choices include:
Your doctor may have you use certain medicines such as:
Other things you can do include:
Your health care provider may choose to decrease your radiation for a short period of time.
There often are no good treatments for chronic radiation enteritis. However, medicines such as cholestyramine, diphenoxylate-atropine, loperamide, or sucralfate may help. You may need to consider surgery to either remove or go around (bypass) a section of damaged intestine.
When the abdomen receives radiation, there is always some nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. In most cases, the symptoms get better within 2 - 3 months after treatment ends.
However, when this condition develops, symptoms may last for a long period of time. Long-term (chronic) enteritis is rarely curable.
Call your health care provider if you are having radiation therapy or have had it in the past and are having a lot of diarrhea or stomach pain and cramping.
Radiation enteropathy; Radiation-induced small bowel injury; Post-radiation enteritis
Czito BG, Willett CG. Radiation injury. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2010: chap 39.
National Cancer Institute. Gastrointestinal Complications PDQ. Updated July 18, 2012.
Prather C. Inflammatory and anatomic diseases of the intestine, peritoneum, mesentery, and omentum. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 144.
Updated by: Jenifer K. Lehrer, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Frankford-Torresdale Hospital, Aria Health System, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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