Send to

Choose Destination
Emerg Med J. 2011 Feb;28(2):98-101. doi: 10.1136/emj.2008.059717. Epub 2010 Nov 10.

Establishment of a definitive protocol for the diagnosis and management of body packers (drug mules).

Author information

Department of Surgery, Caritas Health Care, New York Medical College-Brooklyn and Queens Program, New York, USA.



'Mules' or body packers are people who transport illegal drugs by packet ingestion into the gastrointestinal tract. These people are otherwise healthy and their management should maintain minimal morbidity. In this study, experience with body packers is presented and an algorithm for conservative and surgical management is provided.


The clinical patient database for all body packer admissions at Mary Immaculate Hospital of the Caritas Health Care Inc. from 1993 to 2005 was interrogated. 56 patients (4.5%) required admission out of a total of 1250 subjects confirmed to be body packers and apprehended by United State Customs officials at JFK International Airport, New York. The retrieved patient data were analysed retrospectively.


70% of the body packers were men, with a male to female ratio of 2.8 to 1. The mean age was 33 years and 52% were from Columbia. Heroin was the most common illegally transported substance (73%). 25 patients (45%) required surgical intervention, whereas 31 patients (55%) were successfully managed conservatively. Indications for intervention included: bowel obstruction, packet rupture/toxicity, and delayed progression of packet transit on conservative management. Multiple intraoperative manoeuvres were used to remove the foreign bodies: gastrotomy, enterotomy and colotomy. Wound infection was the most common complication and is associated with distal enterotomy and colotomy.


Men were more likely to present as body packers than women. Proximal enterotomies are preferred and multiple enterotomies should be avoided. A confirmatory radiological study is needed to demonstrate complete clearance of packets. A systematic protocol for the management of body packers results in minimal morbidity and no mortality.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

Supplemental Content

Full text links

Icon for HighWire
Loading ...
Support Center