Relationships between serum electrolyte concentrations and ileus: A joint clinical and mathematical modeling study

Physiol Rep. 2021 Feb;9(3):e14735. doi: 10.14814/phy2.14735.


Aim: Prolonged postoperative ileus (PPOI) occurs in around 15% of patients after major abdominal surgery, posing a significant clinical and economic burden. Significant fluid and electrolyte changes may occur peri-operatively, potentially contributing to PPOI; however, this association has not been clearly elucidated. A joint clinical-theoretical study was undertaken to evaluate peri-operative electrolyte concentration trends, their association with ileus, and predicted impact on bioelectrical slow waves in interstitial cells of Cajal (ICC) and smooth muscle cells (SMC).

Methods: Data were prospectively collected from 327 patients undergoing elective colorectal surgery. Analyses were performed to determine associations between peri-operative electrolyte concentrations and prolonged ileus. Biophysically based ICC and SMC mathematical models were adapted to evaluate the theoretical impacts of extracellular electrolyte concentrations on cellular function.

Results: Postoperative day (POD) 1 calcium and POD 3 chloride, sodium were lower in the PPOI group (p < 0.05), and POD3 potassium was higher in the PPOI group (p < 0.05). Deficits beyond the reference range in PPOI patients were most notable for sodium (Day 3: 29.5% ileus vs. 18.5% no ileus, p = 0.04). Models demonstrated an 8.6% reduction in slow-wave frequency following the measured reduction in extracellular NaCl on POD5, with associated changes in cellular slow-wave morphology and amplitude.

Conclusion: Low serum sodium and chloride concentrations are associated with PPOI. Electrolyte abnormalities are unlikely to be a primary mechanism of ileus, but their pronounced effects on cellular electrophysiology predicted by modeling suggest these abnormalities may adversely impact motility recovery. Resolution and correction of electrolyte abnormalities in ileus may be clinically relevant.

Keywords: Ileus; Interstitial cells of Cajal (ICC); chloride; electrolytes; motility; smooth muscle.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Biomarkers / blood
  • Chlorides / blood*
  • Female
  • Gastrointestinal Motility*
  • Humans
  • Ileus / blood*
  • Ileus / physiopathology
  • Interstitial Cells of Cajal / metabolism
  • Male
  • Models, Biological*
  • Muscle, Smooth / metabolism*
  • Muscle, Smooth / physiopathology
  • Periodicity
  • Postoperative Complications / blood*
  • Postoperative Complications / physiopathology
  • Sodium / blood*
  • Time Factors
  • Water-Electrolyte Balance*


  • Biomarkers
  • Chlorides
  • Sodium