What Is an Intestinal Obstruction?

Obstruction in the Intestine

If you think you have a bowel blockage, seek medical care right away.
If you think you have a bowel blockage, seek medical care right away.

Few people get through life without ever having constipation -- at least a time or two. It’s usually nothing to worry about. But sometimes constipation is a sign of something serious, especially if you can’t pass gas or poop at all.

This may mean you have an intestinal obstruction. That’s a blockage that keeps food or liquid from passing normally through your intestines (bowels). Gases, food, and fluids then build up above the blockage. The barrier can be partial or complete and may happen in either your small or large intestine.

If you think you have a bowel blockage, get medical care right away. Here is information about bowel obstructions that can help you make decisions and take action that in some cases might save your life.

Intestinal Obstruction Symptoms and Signs

Anyone can have an obstruction at any age.

In infants, the first sign of a blockage may be sudden loud crying. Your baby may also pull his knees to his chest while crying. At first, the pain may come and go. But, it will last longer and happen more often over time.

Other signs and symptoms are:

In adults, the most common signs and symptoms of a bowel block are:

What Causes Intestinal Obstruction?

In newborns and infants, the most common causes are:

  • One part of the intestine slides into another part (intussusception)
  • A birth defect
  • A hard stool that plugs the intestine (meconium plug syndrome)
  • A twisted loop in the intestine (volvulus)
  • A narrow or absent portion of intestine (intestinal atresia)

In adults, the most common causes are:

  • Bands of scar tissue (adhesions) that form in the belly or pelvic area after surgery
  • Hernias, when parts of the intestine bulge into another part of your body
  • Colorectal cancer or cancers that have spread to the abdomen

This blockage may also happen if you have:

  • Crohn’s disease, which may inflame and thicken the intestine and narrow its passageway
  • Infected or inflamed pouches in your intestine (diverticulitis)
  • Twists in your bowel (volvulus)
  • Poop that becomes too dense
  • Having had radiation to your belly or pelvis in the past

Diagnosis of Intestinal Obstruction

To get a sense of what’s going on, your doctor will ask about your symptoms and your medical history. She may also check your intestines for signs of an obstruction and listen for bowel sounds with a stethoscope.

Then, your doctor may order blood tests and use one or more of the following imaging tests to get a look inside:

Intestinal Obstruction Treatment

The treatment for obstruction varies depending on:

  • Your age
  • The cause and location of the blockage
  • Whether it is partial or complete

If some food or fluid can get through, a special low-fiber diet may be all you need to clear the blockage. In children, an enema alone may fix the problem.

In most cases, you will need to go to the hospital for treatment. Health care providers may immediately insert:

  • An IV in your arm to provide fluids so you won’t need to drink or eat for a while
  • A tube from your nose to your stomach to drain air and fluid from your stomach and relieve swelling
  • A thin, flexible tube called a catheter into your bladder to drain urine

With these steps alone, a bowel obstruction may get better within a few days.

Surgery for Intestinal Obstruction

If you still can’t have a bowel movement, you might need surgery. Which procedure you have depends on the cause of the blockage and where it’s located. Options include:

  • Removal: Your doctor surgically removes the obstruction and any piece of damaged intestine.
  • Stent: Another option is to insert a tiny wire mesh tube into your intestine. It will open your intestine and help the obstruction clear. You may still need surgery later.
  • Ostomy: In some cases, the surgeon will connect a piece of intestine to a surgical opening in the abdominal wall. Poop moves through this opening and collects in a pouch outside the body.

Intestinal Obstruction Complications

With quick care, treatment usually works well. If you don’t receive treatment, though, you could develop more serious problems. The obstruction may block blood flow to the intestine and cause parts of it to die. The blockage may also tear your intestine.

In either case, intestinal contents and bacteria can spill into your body or blood. This can cause very serious infection, fever, and sometimes shock. Without medical or surgical treatment right away, an obstruction can cause death.

Seek emergency care if you have severe belly pain and vomiting and can’t pass gas or poop at all.

Intestinal Pseudo-Obstruction

This rare condition causes symptoms that seem like an intestinal obstruction. But no blockage is present. Instead, the cause is a nerve or muscle problem that disrupts movement of material through your intestine.

Treatment For Pseudo-Obstruction

Your doctor will first treat this condition with special nutrition through a feeding tube. You may also need medications to treat symptoms and complications. Less often, the doctor will perform a procedure to remove gas from the large intestine (decompression) or will remove a part of the intestine.

References
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Mayo Clinic: “Intestinal Obstruction,” “Intussusception.”

Merck Manual: “Intestinal Obstruction.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Small Bowel Obstruction,” “Large Bowel (Intestinal) Obstruction.”

JAMA Network: “Small Bowel Obstruction.”

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Intestinal Pseudo-obstruction.”

Cedars Sinai: “Blocked Intestine.”
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