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Intestinal Obstruction

Intestinal obstruction, also called bowel obstruction, is a mechanical blockage of the small or large intestine that prevents the passage of its contents. A blockage can be partial or complete and can be caused by many factors, most commonly abdominal adhesions from surgery. Without treatment, intestinal obstructions can lead to serious medical problems. In cases of complete obstruction, surgery is typically required.

Intestinal Obstruction Causes and Risk Factors

The most common causes of mechanical obstruction are:

  • Abdominal adhesions, caused by prior abdominal or pelvic surgery
  • Hernias
  • Tumors

Additional causes include:

  • Diverticulitis
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
  • Foreign bodies, such as gallstones
  • Twisted bowel (volvulus)
  • Telescoping of one segment of the bowel into another (intussusception), common in children
  • Fecal impaction

Factors that can increase the risk of intestinal obstruction include:

  • Constipation
  • Prior abdominal or pelvic surgery
  • Inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
  • A prior bowel obstruction

Symptoms of Intestinal Obstruction

Symptoms of intestinal obstruction include:

  • Intermittent abdominal pain and cramping
  • Loss of appetite
  • Constipation
  • Vomiting
  • Inability to have a bowel movement or to pass gas
  • Abdominal swelling or bloating

Diagnosing Intestinal Obstruction

If you experience symptoms of intestinal obstruction, seek medical attention right away. Your doctor will ask questions about your medical history and your symptoms. He or she will perform a physical exam, looking for abdominal swelling, tenderness or a mass, and may listen to your abdomen through a stethoscope.

To confirm a diagnosis of intestinal obstruction, your doctor may order diagnostic tests, including an X-ray, a computerized tomography (CT) scan or an ultrasound. In certain cases, your doctor may perform an air or barium enema, inserting air or barium into the colon through the rectum, a diagnostic procedure that can actually correct intussusception in children.

Complications of Intestinal Obstruction

Prolonged obstruction can cause serious conditions, including:

  • Acute intestinal ischemia and infarction, a medical emergency resulting from a sudden reduction in intestinal blood flow
  • Bowel perforation, also known as ruptured bowel, causing diffuse peritonitis, infection of the abdominal cavity, a medical emergency

Treatment for Intestinal Obstruction

Treatment varies, based on the type and cause of the obstruction, but almost always requires hospitalization.

Patients experiencing a partial blockage may be treated non-surgically, through a special low-fiber diet. If the blockage doesn’t resolve on its own, surgery may be required to clear the obstruction.

A complete blockage usually requires surgery to remove the blockage and damaged intestinal tissue. In patients who cannot undergo surgery, a stent may be inserted into the colon, to enlarge the colon to allow the obstruction to pass.

Getting Help

An intestinal obstruction can be a medical emergency. If you or your child is experiencing symptoms of intestinal obstruction, seek medical attention right away.

The skilled, board-certified general surgeons affiliated with Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center specialize in abdominal surgeries, performing over 400 surgeries for the treatment of intestinal obstruction every year.

To schedule an appointment with a physician affiliated with Memorial Hermann, click here or call 713-222-CARE (2273).