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Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 1994 Mar 1;28(4):905-12.

Altered motility causes the early gastrointestinal toxicity of irradiation.

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Department of Radiation Oncology, Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.



Total abdominal radiation produces symptoms of nausea, vomiting abdominal cramping and diarrhea. Each of these symptoms is associated with disordered intestinal motility. This article reviews studies of large and small intestinal contractile activity following radiation exposure.


Studies of motility utilize strain gauge transducers surgically implanted on the seromuscular layer of the small intestine. All studies were performed in mixed breed dogs to record the occurrence of normal contractions, giant migrating contractions (GMCs) and retrograde giant contractions (RGCs) before, during and after irradiation (22.5 Gy in 9 fractions at 3 fractions/week). Giant migrating contractions and retrograde giant contractions are infrequent in the healthy state. However, in diseased states, GMCs are associated with abdominal cramps and diarrhea, and RGCs precede vomiting.


In fasted animals, fractionated abdominal irradiation dramatically increased the frequency of GMCs, with the incidence peaking after the second dose. The increased frequency of GMCS occurred as early as a few hours after the first radiation fraction, and returned to normal within days of cessation of radiation. RGCs were also significantly increased after abdominal irradiation. The frequency of RGCs was greatest on the first and sixth dose of radiation. Clinically, the dogs developed nausea, vomiting and diarrhea as early as the first day of irradiation. In dogs studied in the fed state, decreased amplitude, duration, and frequency of postprandial contractions occurred. These changes may slow intestinal transit during irradiation. Radiation also produced a striking increase in the frequency of colonic GMCs; these changes in colonic motor activity were associated with diarrhea as early as the second irradiation.


Changes in GI motility during fractionated irradiation precede the appearance of histopathological lesions in the GI tract. Thus, the symptoms of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea experienced during radiotherapy (particularly those within the first week) are directly related to changes in bowel motility. It is hoped that further understanding of the etiology of these distressing symptoms will help to guide their treatment.

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