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Bowel Obstruction

Bowel Obstruction

Topic Overview

What is a bowel obstruction?

A bowel obstruction happens when either your small or large intestine is partly or completely blocked. The blockage prevents food, fluids, and gas from moving through the intestines in the normal way. The blockage may cause severe pain that comes and goes.

This topic covers a blockage caused by tumors, scar tissue, or twisting or narrowing of the intestines. It does not cover ileus , which most commonly happens after surgery on the belly (abdominal surgery).

What causes a bowel obstruction?

Tumors, scar tissue ( adhesions ), or twisting or narrowing of the intestines can cause a bowel obstruction. These are called mechanical obstructions .

In the small intestine, scar tissue is most often the cause. Other causes include hernias and Crohn's disease , which can twist or narrow the intestine, and tumors, which can block the intestine. A blockage also can happen if one part of the intestine folds like a telescope into another part, which is called intussusception .

In the large intestine, cancer is most often the cause. Other causes are severe constipation from a hard mass of stool, and narrowing of the intestine caused by diverticulitis or inflammatory bowel disease .

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms include:

  • Cramping and belly pain that comes and goes. The pain can occur around or below the belly button.
  • Vomiting.
  • Bloating.
  • Constipation and a lack of gas, if the intestine is completely blocked.
  • Diarrhea, if the intestine is partly blocked.

Call your doctor right away if your belly pain is severe and constant. This may mean that your intestine's blood supply has been cut off or that you have a hole in your intestine. This is an emergency.

How is a bowel obstruction diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and other digestive problems you've had. He or she will check your belly for tenderness and bloating.

Your doctor may do:

  • An abdominal X-ray , which can find blockages in the small and large intestines.
  • A CT scan of the belly, which helps your doctor see whether the blockage is partial or complete.

How is it treated?

Most bowel obstructions are treated in the hospital.

In the hospital, your doctor will give you medicine and fluids through a vein ( IV ). To help you stay comfortable, your doctor may place a tiny tube called a nasogastric (NG) tube through your nose and down into your stomach. The tube removes fluids and gas and helps relieve pain and pressure. You will not be given anything to eat or drink.

Most bowel obstructions are partial blockages that get better on their own. Some people may need more treatment. These treatments include using liquids or air ( enemas ) or small mesh tubes ( stents ) to open up the blockage.

Surgery is almost always needed when the intestine is completely blocked or when the blood supply is cut off. You may need a colostomy or an ileostomy after surgery. The diseased part of the intestine is removed, and the remaining part is sewn to an opening in the skin. Stool passes out of the body through the opening and collects in a disposable colostomy bag .

If your blockage was caused by another health problem, such as diverticulitis, the blockage may come back if you don't treat that health problem.

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  Bowel Disease: Caring for Your Ostomy

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

American College of Gastroenterology
6400 Goldsboro Road
Suite 200
Bethesda, MD 20817
Phone: (301) 263-9000
Web Address: http://patients.gi.org
 

The American College of Gastroenterology is an organization of digestive disease specialists. The website contains information about common gastrointestinal problems.


American Gastroenterological Association
4930 Del Ray Avenue
Bethesda, MD  20814
Phone: (301) 654-2055
Fax: (301) 654-5920
Web Address: www.gastro.org
 

The American Gastroenterological Association is a society of doctors who specialize in the digestive system (gastroenterologists). This Web site can help you find a gastroenterologist in your area. They also have patient information on many gastrointestinal diseases and disorders.


American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons
85 West Algonquin Road
Suite 550
Arlington Heights, IL  60005
Phone: (847) 290-9184
Fax: (847) 290-9203
Email: ascrs@fascrs.org
Web Address: www.fascrs.org
 

The American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons is the leading professional society representing more than 1,000 board-certified colon and rectal surgeons and other surgeons dedicated to treating people with diseases and disorders affecting the colon, rectum, and anus.


National Cancer Institute (NCI)
6116 Executive Boulevard
Suite 300
Bethesda, MD  20892-8322
Phone: 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237)
Web Address: www.cancer.gov (or https://livehelp.cancer.gov/app/chat/chat_launch for live help online)
 

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is a U.S. government agency that provides up-to-date information about the prevention, detection, and treatment of cancer. NCI also offers supportive care to people who have cancer and to their families. NCI information is also available to doctors, nurses, and other health professionals. NCI provides the latest information about clinical trials. The Cancer Information Service, a service of NCI, has trained staff members available to answer questions and send free publications. Spanish-speaking staff members are also available.


National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse
2 Information Way
Bethesda, MD  20892-3570
Phone: 1-800-891-5389
Fax: (703) 738-4929
TDD: 1-866-569-1162 toll-free
Email: nddic@info.niddk.nih.gov
Web Address: www.digestive.niddk.nih.gov
 

This clearinghouse is a service of the U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The clearinghouse answers questions; develops, reviews, and sends out publications; and coordinates information resources about digestive diseases. Publications produced by the clearinghouse are reviewed carefully for scientific accuracy, content, and readability.


References

Other Works Consulted

  • Parangi S, Hodin R (2006). Intestinal obstruction. In MM Wolfe et al., eds., Therapy of Digestive Disorders, 2nd. ed., pp. 819–833. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Jerome B. Simon, MD, FRCPC, FACP - Gastroenterology
Last Revised April 27, 2011

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