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Bowel Obstruction - Topic Overview

What is a bowel obstruction?

A bowel obstruction happens when either your small camera.gif or large intestine camera.gif 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 camera.gif.

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 camera.gif 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 and a large, hard belly.
  • 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, other digestive problems you've had, and any surgeries or procedures you've had in that area. 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.
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