Authored by Revere Health

What is Intestinal Obstruction?

January 27, 2017 | Gastroenterology

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There are several areas of the body where blockages or buildups can cause problems, including the intestines. The intestines are responsible for absorbing the nutrients from what we eat and drink, so it’s important to keep the intestinal system healthy.

One common blockage problem is known as an intestinal obstruction, or a bowel obstruction. This happens anytime there is a blockage in the small or large intestine that stops food or liquid from passing through normally. If left untreated, intestinal obstructions can cause serious complications.

Here’s a look at some signs that suggest you might have an intestinal obstruction, the causes of an intestinal obstruction and its treatments.


Signs of Intestinal Obstruction

If you have an intestinal obstruction, some symptoms might include:

  • Vomiting
  • Random pain in the abdomen or stomach, with no real pattern
  • Loss of appetite
  • Constipation or inability to pass gas
  • Swelling in the stomach or abdomen

Because some of these symptoms can also be present in several other conditions, pain in the abdomen is usually the clearest sign that you’re dealing with an obstruction. However, intestinal obstructions can take place without experiencing major pain, so if you experience vomiting or constipation for more than a short period of time, speak with your doctor.


Causes and Risk Factors of Intestinal Obstruction

There are several different causes of intestinal obstructions in the body:

  • Colon cancer (common)
  • Intestinal adhesions: Bands of tissue that are sometimes created during a previous surgery (common)
  • Intussusception: Also called telescoping of the intestine, this is the most common cause of obstructions in children
  • Twisted colon
  • Hernias
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s, IBD)
  • Diverticulitis: When small pouches in the intestines become infected
  • Impacted feces


There are also several conditions that can raise a person’s risk of intestinal obstruction including:

  • Crohn’s disease
  • Cancer of the abdomen
  • Surgery of the abdomen or pelvis



There are many treatments available for intestinal obstructions. If left without treatment, however, they can cause serious issues:

  • Infection: Called peritonitis in the abdomen, infection often requires immediate surgery.
  • Death of tissue: Usually due to a lack of blood. Tissue death often takes place in the intestinal wall, which can cause tears in the wall and infections.

In addition, a condition called intestinal pseudo-obstruction, or paralytic ileus, gives off symptoms like a normal obstruction, but without the blockage. Pseudo-obstructions are caused by nerve complications that slow down intestines’ rate in processing food and liquid. These are caused by surgeries, infections, medications and certain nerve disorders like Parkinson’s disease. In most cases, they’re less harmful than a normal intestinal obstruction and symptoms go away in a short period of time.


Diagnosis and Treatment

There are several ways a doctor can diagnose an intestinal obstruction including:

  • Basic physical exam: Includes history, medications and review of symptoms. Your doctor may use a stethoscope or check for swollen lumps in your abdomen
  • X-ray of the abdomen
  • CT scan (combines a series of X-rays for more accuracy)
  • Ultrasound (uses ultrasonic waves – often the best treatment for children with intestinal obstructions)
  • Barium enema: A liquid inserted into the colon through the rectum to act as a contrasting agent (air may be used instead of liquid in some cases). This is also used as a treatment for certain kinds of blockage in children.


Treatment for intestinal obstructions vary depending on the severity of each case. Most cases require hospitalization, where you’ll usually be given IV fluids and a catheter, and a tube in your nose to remove extra air and help stop the swelling caused by the obstruction. From there, treatment depends on the type of obstruction:

  • Partial obstruction: Your doctor may recommend further treatment once you are stabilized, depending on the outcome. More minor cases may also involve changes to your diet.
  • Complete obstruction: Most of these cases require surgery to remove the obstruction. If any part of the intestine has died during the obstruction, it will need to be removed also. One form of surgery might include a metal stent, which is inserted into the colon and forces the colon to stay open until the blockage clears. It’s considered a low-impact surgical procedure, so many people prefer it to a complete removal of the obstruction.
  • Pseudo-obstruction: These often treat themselves, but in rare cases where they do not, surgery or another treatment called decompression is used.


Are you experiencing pain in your abdomen, or have other symptoms of intestinal obstruction? Contact your doctor to find out about your options for diagnosis and treatment.


If you need a colonoscopy, make an appointment with Revere Health. Our gastroenterologists have performed over 200,000 comprehensive colonoscopies. We use the latest technology and equipment to ensure accurate results.



“Bowel Obstruction – Topic Overview.” WebMD.

“Intestinal obstruction.” The Mayo Clinic.



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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.