"Postoperative ileus" means that the normal movements of a person's bowels — which squeeze and relax to move food along — slow down or sometimes even stop entirely, said senior study author Dr. Vincenzo Berghella, an OB-GYN at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.
This slowing down of gut movements can lead to symptoms including nausea, abdominal pain and bloating, Berghella told Live Science. Any type of abdominal surgery, not just a C-section, can cause the condition, he added. It's thought to be caused by the inflammation that results from cutting open the abdomen.
Normally, postoperative ileus goes away on its own in about three or four days after an operation, but people can be uncomfortable while the condition lasts, the meta-analysis said.
Doctors can take several different approaches to help a woman get her gut moving again, including suggesting that the woman gets up and walk around, or eat soon after the operation, Berghella said. But because women with postoperative ileus can feel nauseous, they may not want to eat, he noted.
Enter chewing gum.
Chewing gum can trick the body into thinking that the person is eating, Berghella said. It gets saliva flowing in the mouth and can help send signals to the gut to start moving again, he said.
In the meta-analysis, the researchers looked at 17 studies that included a total of more than 3,000 women. All of the studies focused on one simple question: How long did it take after the C-section for the woman to fart?
Passing gas is one of the earliest signs that a person's bowels are back to functioning normally, Berghella said. It's a signal that there are no blockages in the gut and things are moving along, he added.
In most of the studies, the women were given gum within 2 hours of their delivery, and asked to chew it three times a day for 15 to 30 minutes at a time. The researchers found that, on average, women who chewed gum farted about 6.5 hours sooner than those who were not given gum: Gum chewers experienced their first fart about 23 hours after the operation, compared with non-chewers, who didn't fart until about 29.5 hours after the operation. There were no side effects from chewing gum, Berghella said.
Dr. Gabriele Saccone, an OB-GYN at the University of Naples Federico II in Italy and an author of the study, added that chewing gum after a C-section is a simple and inexpensive way for women to help get the gut moving again.
The new meta-analysis adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that giving women gum after a C-section is a safe and effective way to help bring back gut function after the operation. A 2016 Cochrane review, for example, concluded that "gum chewing in the first 24 hours after a [C-section] is a well-tolerated, simple, low-cost, safe and easy intervention that enhances early recovery of bowel function, improves maternal comfort and potentially reduces hospital costs."
The researchers noted that more high-quality studies are needed to increase the evidence that supports giving women gum after a C-section.
But Berghella said he hopes that one day he can add "chew gum until you pass your first gas" to his postoperative orders to patients.