Chewing three sticks of sugarless gum a day may help patients recover one day faster from colon surgery and save an estimated $119 million a year in U.S. hospital costs, researchers said.

After colon surgery, patients often have trouble passing gas and having a bowel movement leading to abdominal swelling, nausea, vomiting and cramping. Gum chewing may stimulate nerves in the digestive system, triggering the release of hormones and increasing the production of saliva and digestive juices from the pancreas, according to research published today in the August issue of the Archives of Surgery.

Reducing hospital stays by one day for 31,000 patients each year in England who have colon surgery would save the National Health Service about 6.2 million pounds ($11.5 million), said researchers at St. Mary's Hospital in London. Savings in the U.S. could be about $119 million, based on more than 79,000 annual colon surgeries. The findings should be evaluated in a larger trial to see if they hold up, according to the study.

"The potential cost savings from the reduction of even one postoperative day compared with the cost of several sticks of chewing gum are huge," wrote author Paris Tekkis, a surgeon and lecturer at Imperial College in London, and two colleagues.

The researchers at Imperial's St. Mary's Hospital analyzed five trials that included 158 patients who either chewed gum for five to 45 minutes three times a day or didn't. Those who chewed gum passed gas a little more than half a day sooner and had a bowel movement 1.1 days quicker than those who didn't chew gum, according to the study.

The researchers determined that those who chewed gum left the hospital about one day earlier than those who didn't, based on four studies and 134 patients.

The major function of the colon, or large intestine, is to absorb water and salts from food and send waste out of the body through the anus. Surgery is a treatment for inflammation of a part of the intestine, polyps or cancer. After surgery, patients have to pass gas or have a bowel movement before they get liquids or solid foods and later discharged from the hospital.

The potential benefits warrant a well-designed, large scale trial "to answer the question of whether gum chewing can significantly reduce the length of stay after abdominal surgery or whether it merely represents a placebo effect," according to the study.