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What Is Ileus?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on June 18, 2020

Your intestine is a long and winding tube inside of your body that attaches your stomach to your anus. It has two parts -- small and large. The small intestine's main job is to break down the food you eat. The large intestine, or colon, absorbs water and uses strong, wave-like movements to push broken-down food and waste to your anus so you can poop.

When your intestine stops making those wave-like movements for a while, it's called ileus. It usually lasts from 1-3 days.

Ileus Causes

Ileus has many potential causes, including:

Ileus Symptoms

You’ll feel symptoms in your stomach area for 24 to 72 hours. You may:

  • Feel bloated from a buildup of gas and liquid in your belly
  • Feel sick to your stomach ( nausea)
  • Throw up (vomit)
  • Find it hard to poop ( constipation)
  • Not want to eat
  • Have stomach cramps
  • Have watery stools

Other Ileus Risk Factors

  • Age
  • Obesity
  • Reduced blood flow to the intestines
  • Illness or injury
  • Poor general health
  • Severe weight loss
  • Lots of time spent lying on your back

Ileus Diagnosis

Your doctor will use a stethoscope to listen to the sounds your belly makes. Normal sounds like clicks and gurgles mean everything's probably OK. No sound could be a sign of ileus.

Your doctor may also order imaging tests  to see if your bowels are swollen anywhere.

These may include:

  • X-rays
  • CT scan
  • A series of X-rays called a GI series

Your doctors may ask you to drink a special dye beforehand so they can see your intestines better.

 

Ileus Treatment

Sometimes you don’t need treatment for ileus. If you do, your treatment will depend on how bad your symptoms are and the cause. Your doctor might suggest:

  • No food or fluids by mouth for 24 to 72 hours. Your doctor may also stop or cut back on strong pain relievers (opioid analgesics) or other medications that may be causing your symptoms.
  • IV fluids to help correct any electrolyte imbalance.
  • Suction to relieve a buildup of gas and liquid. A doctor will pass a tube through your nose and into your stomach or small intestine. Then they'll use suction to relax pressure and bloating. If the problem is in your large intestine, the tube is passed through your anus.
  • Electrical stimulation to encourage movement in the intestine.
  • Upright position, especially in patients who may have spent a lot of time lying down.
  • Surgery isn’t usually required, but in some cases it may be if the ileus doesn’t go away.

Ileus vs. Other Blocks of the Intestine

Your doctor will keep an eye on you in the hospital until you're well enough to go home. This should be within a few days.

Rarely, other problems will happen. If they do, then you may need surgery.

You’ll probably get better on your own, but sometimes your doctor will ask for a follow-up appointment. Call your doctor right away if you have:

  • Fever of 100.4 F (38 C) or higher
  • A swollen belly or pain that doesn’t go away
  • A hard time pooping or passing gas
  • A queasy feeling or are throwing up
  • A full feeling in your stomach after small amounts of food or drink
  • Bleeding from your rectum (last section of the large intestine)
  • Poop that's black or looks like tar

Ileus Complications

Ileus usually goes away in a few days. But, if it’s left undiagnosed and untreated, it can lead to life-threatening complications. These include:

  • Perforation or blow-out of the intestinal wall
  • Tissue death (necrosis)
  • Infection of the abdominal cavity (peritonitis)

Ileus Outlook

Your doctor will keep an eye on you in the hospital until you're well enough to go home. This should be within a few days.

Rarely, other problems will happen. If they do, then you may need surgery.

You’ll probably get better on your own, but sometimes your doctor will ask for a follow-up appointment. Call your doctor right away if you have:

  • Fever of 100.4 F (38 C) or higher
  • A swollen belly or pain that doesn’t go away
  • A hard time pooping or passing gas
  • A queasy feeling or are throwing up
  • A full feeling in your stomach after small amounts of food or drink
  • Bleeding from your rectum (last section of the large intestine)
  • Poop that's black or looks like tar
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Informedhealth.org: “How do the intestines work?”

Mayo Clinic: “Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)," “Appendicitis," “Diverticulitis," “Cystic fibrosis," “Intestinal obstruction,” “Parkinson’s disease, “Ulcerative colitis.”

Merck Manual Consumer Version: “Ileus.”

Merck Manual Professional Version: “Ileus.”

Fairview Health Services: “Ileus.”

Loyola Medical Education Network: “Abdomen: Auscultation.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Intussusception.”

Parkinson’s Disease: “Gastrointestinal Dysfunctions in Parkinson's Disease: Symptoms and Treatments.”

Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation: “Intestinal Complications.”

Urology: “Age and Body Mass Index Are Independent Risk Factors for the Development of Postoperative Paralytic Ileus After Radical Cystectomy.”

SCL Health: “Ileus.”

University of Miami Health: “Gastrointestinal dysfunction: esophagus, stomach, and small bowel: intestinal obstruction and ileus.”

Medscape: “Postoperative Ileus Differential Diagnoses.”

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