Intestinal obstruction, also called bowel obstruction, is a blockage of the small or large intestine that prevents food or stool from moving through the intestines.
A blockage can be partial or complete and can be caused by many factors, most commonly abdominal adhesions from surgery – which are fibrous bands of tissue that form between tissue and organs. Without treatment, intestinal obstructions can lead to serious medical problems, and in cases of complete intestinal obstruction, emergency surgery is required to remove the blockage and damaged tissue.
The general surgeons affiliated with Memorial Hermann have extensive experience performing abdominal surgery, and specialize in removing intestinal blockages in a safe, minimally invasive manner, which can allow you to get back to an active life faster.
According to a global study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) in 2015, approximately 3.2 million cases of intestinal obstruction were diagnosed. The condition can affect both males and females, regardless of age, and the most common causes of intestinal obstruction include:
Some additional causes of obstruction can include:
Intestinal blockages can occur even in those who live otherwise healthy lifestyles. However, there are certain factors that can increase your risk of intestinal obstruction, including:
It’s the job of your intestines to move digested food, stomach juices and stool from the stomach to the colon. An intestinal obstruction occurs when this process is hindered by a blockage – either partial or complete.
Consider scheduling an appointment with your primary care physician if you are experiencing any of these symptoms of intestinal obstruction:
In some cases, intestinal obstruction can cause serious and debilitating acute abdominal pain. If you experience sudden, severe abdominal pain in addition to any of the above symptoms, seek emergency medical attention, immediately, by calling 911 or visiting an Emergency Room.
Some patients suffering from a partial or complete bowel obstruction may decide not to seek treatment, believing that the problem will solve itself. The truth is: intestinal obstruction is a serious condition and prolonged obstruction can cause serious complications, and possibly death.
Other serious complications include:
If you believe you may be experiencing symptoms of an intestinal obstruction, schedule an appointment with your primary care physician. At the appointment, 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.
Your doctor will also ask you some questions about your medical history and your symptoms, so it’s important to answer these questions as accurately as you can.
Be prepared to answer the following:
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 a barium enema by inserting air or barium into the colon through the rectum. This diagnostic procedure often can correct intussusception in children.
Treatment varies based on the type and cause of the intestinal obstruction, but the condition almost always requires hospitalization.
If you’re diagnosed with a partial blockage, it may be treated through a variety of non-surgical means. For some patients, a special low-fiber diet may be prescribed in order to flush out the obstruction. In other cases, a nasogastric (NG) tube is inserted through a nostril and into the stomach to siphon away fluid and release pressure on the blockage.
Using these methods, a partial blockage can resolve itself in a few days. If it doesn’t, however, surgery may be required to clear the obstruction.
A complete intestinal obstruction may require surgery to remove the blockage and damaged intestinal tissue. Depending on your condition, there are several types of surgical procedures, including:
Small bowel resection surgery is a procedure which can be performed laparoscopically, which involves specialized equipment and a laparoscope (thin, flexible camera) used by the surgeon to view the inside of the abdominal cavity. Because laparoscopic surgery only involves a few small incisions, it can result in fewer complications and a shorter recovery period.
If a patient is unable to undergo surgery, a stent may be inserted into the colon to enlarge the colon and allow the obstruction to pass.
For a full list of the minimally invasive surgical procedures offered, visit the Robotic and Minimally Invasive Procedures page.
The skilled general surgeons affiliated with Memorial Hermann specialize in abdominal surgeries for the treatment of intestinal obstruction.
If you are experiencing sudden or severe abdominal pain, seek emergency medical attention immediately by calling 911 or visiting an emergency room.