Evaluation of Anastomotic Leak after Esophagectomy for Esophageal Cancer: Typical Time Point of Occurrence, Mode of Diagnosis, Value of Routine Radiocontrast Agent Studies and Therapeutic Options

Dig Surg. 2018;35(5):419-426. doi: 10.1159/000480357. Epub 2017 Nov 7.


Background: Data on the typical time point of occurrence of anastomotic leak (AL) after esophagectomy for esophageal cancer are currently scarce. Therefore, the usefulness of routine radiocontrast agent studies (RRCS) for testing proper healing of the anastomosis after esophagectomy remains unclear. Furthermore, preferred available tools to diagnose postoperative AL and therapeutic options are still under debate.

Methods: We present a retrospective analysis of 328 consecutive patients who underwent esophagectomy for esophageal cancer between 2005 and 2015. A RRCS has been performed to date in our center on the fifth postoperative day (POD), before returning to normal oral intake.

Results: In total, 49 of 328 patients developed AL after esophagectomy (15%). A total of 11 patients (23%) developed AL before the RRCS and 34 patients (69%) after an unremarkable RRCS; and 4 patients (8%) with AL were diagnosed by RRCS, resulting in overall sensitivity of 16%. The median time point of occurrence of AL was POD 9, the majority of AL (84%) occurred between POD 1 and 19. Computed tomography led to the diagnosis of AL in 41% of patients. The most frequent therapy of AL was stenting in 47% of patients. Endoscopic vacuum therapy was used in 4 patients.

Conclusions: The majority of AL occurred within the first 3 weeks after esophagectomy without a typical time point. In our series, RRCS on the fifth POD had a low sensitivity of 16%. Therefore, standardized RRCS and fasting till the examination cannot be generally recommended. In case of clinical suspicion of AL, computed tomography of the chest and abdomen with oral contrast agent should be performed, followed by endoscopy. Endoscopic stent placement remains the standard therapy of AL in our center. Endoscopic vacuum therapy evolves as it is an interesting alternative therapeutic option and can be combined with stenting in selected cases.

Keywords: Anastomotic leak; Esophageal cancer; Routine contrast study.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Anastomotic Leak / diagnostic imaging*
  • Anastomotic Leak / etiology
  • Anastomotic Leak / therapy*
  • Coloring Agents
  • Contrast Media
  • Endoscopy, Gastrointestinal
  • Esophageal Neoplasms / surgery*
  • Esophagectomy / adverse effects
  • Female
  • Hospital Mortality
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Methylene Blue
  • Middle Aged
  • Postoperative Period
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Radiopharmaceuticals
  • Reoperation
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Stents*
  • Time Factors
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed
  • Vacuum


  • Coloring Agents
  • Contrast Media
  • Radiopharmaceuticals
  • Methylene Blue