Bowel obstruction (intestinal obstruction): Causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment

bowel-intestinal-obstructionBowel obstruction or intestinal obstruction happens in the small or large intestine. Essentially, it can be a partial or total blockage that prevents fluid and digested food from passing. While this may not sound so bad, the fact is, if enough pressure builds up as a result of the intestinal obstruction, the intestine can rupture. What would cause a bowel or intestinal obstruction? How do you know if you have such a blockage? How do you deal with a diagnosis of bowel obstruction? Read on to find out.

There are many potential causes of bowel or intestinal obstruction, but the most important point to consider is that early diagnosis and treatment is very important. An untreated intestinal obstruction can be fatal.

Bowel obstruction: Causes, risk factors, and complications


Bowel obstruction can be extremely uncomfortable and, of course, frightening at the same time. There are a number of different bowel obstruction causes, including those listed here:

Abdominal adhesions are the formation of scar tissue between bowel loops and the inner lining of the abdominal wall. Intussusception occurs when part of the intestine slides into another part of the intestine.

Who is at risk? Bowel or intestinal obstructions can occur after surgical procedures. Sometimes, surgery to the abdomen or the pelvis can lead to the formation of adhesions, which cause the obstruction. In other situations, people may have Crohn’s disease that causes a thickening of the intestinal walls, making it hard for stools to pass through the rectum. Additionally, abdominal cancer can cause intestinal obstruction, particularly in cases where there is surgical removal of a tumor or radiation treatments.

When intestinal obstruction goes untreated, it can lead to life-threatening consequences. For example, it can cut off the blood supply to part of the intestine. Lack of blood supply can cause the intestinal wall to die. When tissue dies, it can tear and lead to infection. Infection in the abdominal cavity is referred to as peritonitis and requires immediate medical intervention and most often surgery.

Symptoms of bowel obstruction

“Incredibly uncomfortable” is how many people describe bowel obstruction symptoms. Below is a list of some of the most common signs and symptoms.

Bowel obstruction symptoms often depend on the location of the obstruction. For instance, vomiting is a sign of a small intestine obstruction. Diarrhea is often associated with a partial obstruction, while a total obstruction usually leads to constipation. If an obstruction causes the intestinal wall to rupture, a high fever is also possible.

Diagnosing intestinal obstruction

It is true that some of the symptoms mentioned above could also be a sign of some other medical issue, so you might be wondering how a person would even know that they have a bowel or intestinal obstruction. Well, there are a few different tests and procedures for bowel obstruction diagnosis.

  • Physical exam – The doctor will review your history and symptoms. They will also conduct a thorough physical assessment, checking the abdomen for swelling and tenderness, as well as listening to the bowel with a stethoscope.
  • X-ray – While an X-ray may be ordered, it does not show all intestinal obstructions.
  • CT scan – This combination of X-ray images taken from different angles produces a cross-section view and is more likely to detect an obstruction.
  • Ultrasound – Young children are often tested with this type of imaging. It can pick up twisted intestines.
  • Air or barium enema – This is enhanced imaging of the colon that involves inserting air or liquid barium into the colon through the rectum to help enhance images.

Treating bowel obstruction

When it comes to intestinal obstruction treatment, it depends on the cause of the obstruction. In the majority of cases though, hospitalization is required. If you have an obstruction, a stay in the hospital can help stabilize your condition. Doctors will order an intravenous line so that you get enough fluids. They will also most likely put a nasogastric tube through your nose and into your stomach in order to suck out air and fluid. This can relieve the swelling in the abdomen. In many cases, a catheter will be inserted in the bladder to drain and collect urine for testing.

Here are the other intestinal or bowel obstruction treatment procedures:

Partial obstruction: A low fiber diet that is easy for a blocked abdomen to process. If that doesn’t help, surgery may be necessary.

Complete obstruction: Surgery may be needed and could involve removing the obstruction and a section of the intestine that has died or sustained damage. The doctor may also suggest treatment with a self-expanding metal stent, which forces the colon open so that the obstruction can clear.

Intussusception: A barium or air enema is used as a treatment for children with intussusception. If an enema works, further treatment is usually not required.

Pseudo-obstruction: Known as paralytic ileus, this is a blockage that doesn’t seem to have an actual physical obstruction, but is caused by malfunctioning nerves and muscles. Often doctors will prescribe medications to cause muscles to contract and thus move food and fluids through the intestines. If paralytic ileus is caused by another medical condition, the doctor will treat that condition to help bring the pseudo-obstruction under control.


Fluids and digested food particles have to travel through 25 feet of intestines or more before new wastes enter the body. In other words, the waste system in our bodies is a constant assembly line. If that line slows and suddenly stops, creating a blockage, it is easy to see how that could cause a problem.

While we shouldn’t panic every time we get a stomachache, people do need to pay attention to severe abdominal signs like those outlined here. An intestinal obstruction is serious, but if caught and treated in a timely manner a good outcome is possible.

Related: Irregular bowel movements treatment: How to have regular bowel movements


Related Reading:

How to know if your bowel movements are normal

Bowel movements: How often should you poop?