Bowel Obstruction

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on August 31, 2022
4 min read

A bowel obstruction is a serious problem that happens when something blocks your bowels, either your large or small intestine. It’s also known as an intestinal obstruction.

If your digestive system comes to a grinding halt, you can’t have a bowel movement or pass gas. You might also notice stomach pain and a swollen belly.

A common type of blockage is called fecal impaction. This is when a large, hard mass of poop gets stuck in your digestive tract and can’t get pushed out the usual way. But when your bowel is blocked by something other than hard stool, doctors call it a bowel obstruction.

A bowel obstruction may be a partial blockage or a complete blockage. You can also have what’s called a pseudo-obstruction. This is when you have symptoms of a bowel obstruction but nothing physically blocking it. It can happen because of problems with your gastrointestinal muscles or with the nerves that control them.

Signs of an intestinal blockage will depend on how severe the obstruction is. But it almost always comes with belly pain, usually around your belly button, and cramping. Other signs include:

  • Constipation
  • Can’t pass gas
  • Lack of appetite
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • A hard, swollen belly
  • Diarrhea (with a partial blockage)

If you’ve been constipated and have any of these symptoms, contact your doctor right away. They’ll let you know what to do, including whether to call 911.

Many people with bowel obstructions are older and may have other serious illnesses, so a bowel obstruction may be life-threatening. You’ll most likely need to go to the hospital for treatment.

Your bowel could become blocked in several ways:

  • Part of your bowel may get twisted, which can close it off and keep anything from passing through.
  • It can get inflamed and swell up.
  • Part of your intestine can slide into another part like a telescope (intussusception).
  • Scar tissue or a hernia could make your bowel too narrow for anything to pass through.
  • tumor or other type of growth inside your bowel could block it.
  • Damaged blood vessels leading to the bowel can cause some bowel tissue to die.

In many cases, inflammation, surgeries, or cancer can cause a bowel obstruction. It’s more likely to happen in older people.

Bowel obstructions can happen in your small or large intestine, but they’re more likely to be in the small intestine. You might be at higher risk if you have:

Your doctor will ask about your medical history, including whether you’ve been constipated, if you’ve had cancer, and what new symptoms you’ve had. They also may:

  • Do a physical exam to see if you have pain in your belly, if you’re able to pass gas, or if they can feel a lump in your belly
  • Order blood tests
  • Order urine tests
  • Order a CT scan or an X-ray to look for a blockage
  • Give you a barium enema. They’ll put a special liquid that contains barium (a whitish-silver metal) into your rectum. It will spread into your bowels and show on an X-ray as a bright area. If there’s a blockage, the barium may show it.

You’ll probably need to go to the hospital for treatment. Your doctor will give you medicine and fluids through a vein (intravenous or IV). They may also run a thin tube through your nose and into your stomach. This is called a nasogastric (NG) tube. It lets out fluids and gas to ease your symptoms.

Most partial blockages get better on their own. Your doctor may give you a special diet that’s easier on your intestines.

Enemas of air or fluid can help clear blockages by raising the pressure inside your bowels.

A mesh tube called a stent is a safe option for people who are too sick for surgery. Your doctor puts it in your intestine to force the bowel open. Some people may not need anything more than a stent. Others may need surgery after they become stable.

Surgery is usually the best treatment for a totally blocked intestine when your bowel is damaged. Your doctor can treat the cause of the obstruction or take out the blocked area and any damaged tissue.

If you have surgery, you may need a colostomy or ileostomy. After your doctor takes out the damaged part of your intestine, they sew the rest to an opening in your skin. Poop exits your body through this opening and goes into a disposable bag. In some cases, your intestines can be reattached after you get better.

Show Sources


Harvard Health Publishing: “Bowel Obstruction.”

Merck Manual Consumer Version: “Intestinal Obstruction.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Understanding an Intestinal Obstruction.”

Radiological Society of North America: “Therapeutic Enema for Intussusception.”

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