What Is a Bowel Obstruction?

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

These could all be signs you have a bowel obstruction, which is a serious problem that happens when something blocks your bowel, either your large or small intestine.

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

Causes

There are different ways that your bowel could become blocked:

  • Part of your bowel may become twisted, which can close it off and stop anything from passing through.
  • Your bowel may become inflamed and swell up.
  • Scar tissue or a hernia could make your bowel too narrow for anything to pass through.
  • A tumor or other type of growth inside your bowel could block the passage.
  • Damaged blood vessels leading to the bowel can cause some bowel tissue to die.
  • If the bowel’s muscle walls become paralyzed (unable to move), they can’t move anything along.

In many cases, inflammation, prior surgeries, or cancer can cause the 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. Common causes are:

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Symptoms

Signs of an intestinal blockage will depend on how bad the obstruction is. But it almost always comes with abdominal pain and cramping. Here are some other possible signs you have a bowel obstruction:

  • You’re constipated.
  • You can’t pass gas at all.
  • Stomach cramps come and go.
  • You don’t get hungry.
  • You throw up or feel like you’re going to.
  • Your belly is swollen.
  • You have diarrhea.

If you’ve been constipated and any of these symptoms appear, contact your doctor right away. They should let you know whether or not you’re having an emergency and should 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 to get better.

Diagnosis

Your doctor will ask about your medical history -- whether you’ve been constipated, if you’ve had cancer, what new symptoms you’ve had. She’ll do a physical exam to see if you have pain in your abdomen, if you’re able to pass gas, or if there’s a lump that she can feel in your abdomen. You may need blood tests, or you may need to have your urine tested.

She may also send you to have a CT scan, because it’s likely to show a blockage if you have one. Sometimes a bowel obstruction can appear on an X-ray, so your doctor may ask you to get X-rays of your abdomen instead.

Your doctor may give you a barium enema. This means a special liquid that contains barium (a whitish-silver metal) will be inserted into your rectum. It will spread into your bowels and appear on an X-ray as a bright area. If there’s a blocked area, the barium may show it.

Treatment

If you have a complete blockage of your bowel, you will likely have to be hospitalized for treatment, which typically includes surgery or a procedure to open up the blockage.

Surgery. If you’re healthy enough for surgery, you may need to have the area causing the blockage removed. The surgeon also will remove any tissue in your bowel that has died due to lack of blood flow.

Stent. This is the safer option for people who are too sick for emergency surgery. A stent made out of wire mesh is placed in the bowel at the site of the blockage to force the bowel open. This will allow matter to pass through again. Some people may not need anything more than a stent. Others may need surgery after they become stable.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on November 03, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

Mayo Clinic: “Intestinal obstruction: Overview,” “Intestinal obstruction: Symptoms and causes,” “Intestinal obstruction: Treatment.”

National Cancer Institute: “Gastrointestinal complications (PDQ) – patient version: Bowel obstruction.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Large bowel (intestinal) obstruction.”

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