Patients undergoing an abdominal surgical procedure develop a transient episode of impaired gastrointestinal motility or postoperative ileus. Importantly, postoperative ileus is a major determinant of recovery after intestinal surgery and leads to increased morbidity and prolonged hospitalization, which is a great economic burden to health-care systems. Although a variety of strategies reduce postoperative ileus, including multimodal postoperative rehabilitation (fast-track care) and minimally invasive surgery, none of these methods have been completely successful in shortening the duration of postoperative ileus. The aetiology of postoperative ileus is multifactorial, but insights into the pathogenesis of postoperative ileus have identified intestinal inflammation, triggered by surgical handling, as the main mechanism. The importance of this inflammatory response in postoperative ileus is underscored by the beneficial effect of pharmacological interventions that block the influx of leukocytes. New insights into the pathophysiology of postoperative ileus and the involvement of the innate and the adaptive (T-helper type 1 cell-mediated immune response) immune system offer interesting and important new approaches to prevent postoperative ileus. In this Review, we discuss the latest insights into the mechanisms behind postoperative ileus and highlight new strategies to intervene in the postoperative inflammatory cascade.