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01.06.2014 | Original Article | Ausgabe 3/2014

European Journal of Trauma and Emergency Surgery 3/2014

The role of surgery in the management of “body packers”

European Journal of Trauma and Emergency Surgery > Ausgabe 3/2014
L. Álvarez Llano, C. Rey Valcalcel, Y. M. Al-lal, M. D. Pérez Díaz, A. Stafford, F. Turégano Fuentes



The concealment of packets of illegal substances within body cavities is a common technique for drug smuggling worldwide. The goal of our study was to analyze the results of conservative treatment of “body packers”, indications for surgical intervention, and postoperative morbidity.


This is a retrospective study of patients admitted to our hospital and diagnosed as body packers. The diagnostic protocol included an abdominal X-ray and urinalysis for toxic substances. Only patients with gastrointestinal symptoms, signs of intoxication, or a positive urinalysis were admitted for observation. Conservative management included bowel rest and serial abdominal radiographs to confirm the passage per rectum of all foreign bodies. Asymptomatic patients were given laxatives in the emergency department (ED) to promote bowel movements and were not admitted to the hospital.


A total of 763 body packers were admitted to the hospital, all of whom were initially treated conservatively. Of these patients, 47 (6 %) developed complications: 28 with bowel obstruction, three with bowel perforation, and 16 with substance intoxication. In patients developing complications, urinalysis for toxic substances was negative in 19 (40 %). Sixteen (34 %) patients who developed complications were successfully managed nonoperatively. Three (6 %) other patients died before surgery: two deaths resulted from acute toxicity (one of them with an acute onset and a negative urinalysis) and the third patient died of bowel perforation. Laparotomy was required in 28 (3.5 %) body packers admitted for observation. Enterotomy and/or gastrotomy to remove the packets were the most frequently performed procedures. Postoperative morbidity occurred in 57 % of patients, with wound infection being the most frequent complication.


Conservative management was effective in 94 % of symptomatic patients. A laparotomy was required in only 3.5 % of cases. The mortality rate in this series was low, resulting from either severe cocaine poisoning from ruptured packets or bowel perforation.

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