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Bowel Obstruction

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Oct 3, 2022.

What is a bowel obstruction?

A bowel obstruction is a partial or complete blockage of your intestine. Your small or large intestine may be affected. The blockage prevents food and waste from passing through normally.

Digestive Tract

What causes a bowel obstruction?

  • Adhesions are bands of scar tissue that may form after a surgery. An adhesion attaches your intestine to a nearby organ or to the wall of your abdomen. This may pull your intestine out of place and cause an obstruction.
  • A hernia occurs when part of the intestine bulges through the muscle wall of the abdomen. The hernia may cause an obstruction if the intestine becomes trapped.
  • A tumor may cause a blockage of the intestine.
  • A foreign body can block the intestine. A foreign body is something other than food that is swallowed.
  • A sliding or folding of part of the intestine into another portion of the intestine may cause a bowel obstruction.
  • Medical conditions such as Crohn disease and diverticulitis cause changes to the intestine that may cause a bowel obstruction.
  • A twisting of the intestine may cause a bowel obstruction.

What are the signs and symptoms of a bowel obstruction?

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Enlarged abdomen
  • Decreased or no bowel movements or gas

How is a bowel obstruction diagnosed?

  • Blood tests may show if you have an infection, or if you are dehydrated. Dehydration can develop when your intestines cannot absorb liquid properly.
  • An x-ray, ultrasound, CT, or MRI may show the location and cause of your blockage. You may be given contrast liquid to help the blockage show up better in the pictures. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the healthcare provider if you have any metal in or on your body.

How is a bowel obstruction treated?

  • An IV may be used to give you liquids and nutrition. You may not be able to eat or drink anything until your healthcare provider says it is okay.
  • A nasogastric tube may be put into your nose. The tube passes through your throat and is guided into your stomach. The tube will be attached to a suction device that removes air and fluid from your stomach.
  • Medicines may be given for infection, pain, and to prevent nausea or vomiting.
  • Surgery may be done to treat the cause of the blockage.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You have severe abdominal pain that does not get better.
  • Your heart is beating faster than normal for you.
  • You have a fever.

When should I call my doctor?

  • You have nausea and are vomiting.
  • Your abdomen is enlarged.
  • You cannot pass a bowel movement or gas.
  • You lose weight without trying.
  • You have blood in your bowel movement.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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