Surgery for "body packers"--a 15-year experience

World J Surg. 2006 Apr;30(4):541-6. doi: 10.1007/s00268-005-0429-7.


Background: "Body packing" of illegal drugs has increased in the last decades, and with it our experience in treating these patients, yet no clear guidelines for surgical treatment are available. We examined the characteristics and outcomes of patients who required surgical intervention.

Study design: Charts of all patients who underwent surgery at our institution for ingested drug packets between January 1990 and January 2005 were reviewed. Patients were identified by a pre-existing list of names collected prospectively and by admission codes. Reviewed parameters included presentation, method of diagnosis, indication for surgery, procedure, and patient outcome.

Results: Twenty-five patients were identified, for whom charts were available for review. Main indications for surgery were drug toxicity and small bowel obstruction. Most packets were retrieved using a combination of milking and multiple enterotomies. A high rate (40%) of postoperative wound infection was found. The incidence of wound infection correlated significantly with the number of enterotomies.

Conclusion: Surgical intervention for body packing remains the treatment for a minority of these patients. Patients should be placed in lithotomy to facilitate the exposure of the entire gastrointestinal tract, and to allow milking of the packets and their possible retrieval through the anus. The number of enterotomies should be minimized in order to reduce the risk of wound infection. If multiple enterotomies are used, the surgeon should consider leaving the wound open for delayed closure.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Cocaine* / toxicity
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Deglutition
  • Enterostomy
  • Female
  • Foreign Bodies / diagnosis
  • Foreign Bodies / epidemiology
  • Foreign Bodies / surgery*
  • Foreign-Body Migration / diagnosis
  • Foreign-Body Migration / epidemiology
  • Foreign-Body Migration / surgery*
  • Gastrostomy
  • Heroin* / toxicity
  • Humans
  • Illicit Drugs* / toxicity
  • Intestinal Obstruction / surgery
  • Length of Stay / statistics & numerical data
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • New York
  • Postoperative Complications / epidemiology
  • Postoperative Complications / etiology
  • Postoperative Complications / surgery
  • Reoperation
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Surgical Wound Infection / epidemiology
  • Surgical Wound Infection / etiology
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed


  • Illicit Drugs
  • Heroin
  • Cocaine