In systems that try to minimize hospital stay after abdominal surgery, one of the principal limiting factors is the recovery of adequate bowel function, which can delay discharge or lead to readmission. Postoperative ileus (POI) is the term given to the cessation of intestinal function following surgery. Although all surgical procedures put the patient at risk for POI, gastrointestinal tract surgeries in particular are associated with a temporary cessation of intestinal function. The duration of POI varies, lasting from a few hours to several weeks. Prolonged postoperative ileus, also known as pathologic postoperative ileus, can be caused by a myriad of pathologic processes that are treated with limited success by clinical and pharmacologic management. Studies of large administrative databases show that, on average, patients with a diagnosis of POI stay 5 days longer in hospital after abdominal surgery than patients without POI. Over the last decade, substantial efforts have been made to minimize the duration of POI, as there appears to be no associated physiologic benefit, and it is currently the primary factor delaying recovery for most patients. In this review, we define POI, describe the pathogenesis and briefly discuss clinical management before detailing current pharmacologic management options.