Intestinal Obstruction

What is Intestinal Obstruction?

An intestinal obstruction is a blockage or issue in the intestine that prevents the waste that moves through it from being expelled from the body. Intestinal obstructions are also commonly known as bowel obstructions. They can occur in either the small intestine or the large intestine (the colon) and can be full or partial blockages.

A great deal passes through the intestine on any given day including food, liquids, gastric juices, and gas. When a person has an intestinal obstruction, all of these substances can build up causing pressure. Eventually, with enough pressure buildup, the intestine could rupture causing feces and other substances to leak into the abdominal cavity.

Intestinal obstructions could develop for a wide variety of reasons. Colon cancer is one such potential cause. Other bowel or intestinal diseases like Crohn’s disease, diverticulitis, or other inflammatory conditions of the bowel and intestines. Adhesions and scar tissue could narrow of constrict the intestines causing an obstruction and sometimes, a mass of stool or even a foreign object could cause an intestinal obstruction.

What are the Symptoms of Intestinal Obstruction?

If a person has an intestinal obstruction, they may experience severe cramps in their abdomen and general abdominal pain especially in the lower abdomen. Vomiting, decreased appetite, and constipation are also symptoms of this condition. Other symptoms include bloating or swelling and being unable to pass gas. If a person is suffering from a partial bowel obstruction, they may also suffer from diarrhea.

Intestinal Obstruction Causes

There are many ways of getting bowel blockage. One way is through a mechanical cause which informs that there is something blocking the intestinal passage. Another cause involves an underlying medical condition called ileus.

Mechanical causes include: scar tissue that forms after surgery; objects swallowed that block the intestines; tumors that obstruct the intestines and twisted intestines.

Further causes could be stool that is impacted; hernial inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease; and diverticulitis – a condition where protruding pouches in the GI tract become inflamed or infected.


Ileus is a condition where the bowel fails to work properly, ultimately leading to intestinal obstruction. However, there is no structural problem causing it. Causes of paralytic ileus may include viruses or bacteria that cause intestinal infections, electrolyte, chemical, or mineral imbalances, abdominal surgery, a decrease in the supply of blood to the intestines, kidney or lung disease and use of certain medicines, particularly narcotics.

How is Intestinal Obstruction Treated?

Hospitalization is often necessary for an intestinal obstruction because it is such a serious condition. The obstruction needs to be cleared before it causes a serious rupture. Oftentimes, intestinal obstructions can pass without surgery. However, doctors can remove liquid and gas from the intestine using a tube that is threaded through the nose or the mouth. This will relieve pressure while physicians monitor the patient’s condition until the obstruction passes. Surgery may be required with full intestinal obstructions to remove the blockage and any tissue that has been severely damaged or has become necrotic (dead).

Intestinal Obstruction Prevention

Treatment of conditions such as hernias and tumors that can lead to a blockage reduces the risk of acquiring the obstruction. Hernias can be prevented by avoiding heavy lifting, which increases the pressure inside the abdomen and may force a section of intestine to protrude through a vulnerable area of the abdominal wall.

Nutritional changes are advised.

People at high risk of obstructions and diagnosed with a small obstruction are encouraged to do the following with their diet:

  • Frequently eat smaller meals throughout the day and also take up a low-fiber diet that reduces whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
  • They should also avoid greasy and fatty foods as they are difficult to digest.
  • Foods that form gases in the stomach such as soft drinks, gassy vegetables, or beans are also strongly discouraged.
  • The key is to stay hydrated with plenty of fluids such as tea, broth, juice, and water to wash out the system.
  • Drugs such as narcotics are also discouraged.