Written by Amber Erickson Gabbey
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on June 18, 2013

What Is Ileus?

Ileus is a blockage of the intestines caused by a lack of peristalsis. Peristalsis is the pumping action of the intestines that helps move food through the digestive system. Ileus is used to describe both full and partial blockages. Solids (food), liquids, and gases are not able to move properly through the body when ileus occurs.

Bowel movement can stop due to a mechanical blockage as well. Mechanical means there is something physically lodged in the intestine that is causing the blockage. This could be foreign matter or even food or feces, for instance. It could also be a result of a twisted intestine (volvulus), hernia, tumor, inflammation, or abnormal growths. Non-mechanical means there is not a physical blockage but movement has stopped.  Mechanical blockages are more common than non-mechanical blockages. Ileus is an example of a non-mechanical blockage.

What Causes Ileus?

Intestinal blockage can be caused by injury or trauma, lack of activity, or abnormal chemical reactions in the intestines. It may also be a side effect of certain pain medications, such as morphine and oxycodone.

Ileus is often caused by colon cancer, kidney disease, abdominal infection, or inflammation resulting from other conditions, such as diverticulitis. Ileus can also be caused by:

  • volvulus (twisted colon)
  • improper muscle or nerve functioning in the intestines due to surgery
  • infection
  • certain pain medications and antidepressants
  • disorders of the muscles or nerves (e.g. Parkinson’s disease)

Postoperative ileus is a common condition that can prolong hospital stays.

Risk Factors for Ileus

People with certain health conditions, such as Crohn’s disease or abdominal cancer, may be more at risk of developing ileus. Surgery in the abdomen or pelvis can often cause intestinal blockages.

Symptoms of Ileus

The most common symptom of ileus is discomfort in the abdomen due to cramping, bloating, diarrhea, or the inability to make a bowel movement. Nausea and vomiting are also common symptoms.

Ileus is considered a serious medical situation and should be treated as such. If symptoms appear, it is important to seek medical attention immediately.

Diagnosing Ileus

The doctor first looks for possible mechanical blockages. The next step is taking a look at possible non-mechanical blockages. Finding these blockages may involve a physical examination, followed by X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, and/or blood tests.

Treating Ileus

The first step in treating ileus is refraining from eating or drinking. The patient will be given an IV and electrolytes to keep him/her hydrated. Specific treatments will vary depending on the cause of the blockage. Additional treatment might be required for the underlying condition.

An ileus patient might be given medication, including pills (laxatives), suppositories, or enemas to stimulate a bowel movement. The doctor will then monitor the patient’s bowels to watch for signs of activity. Passing gas or having a bowel movement are good signs that the intestines are starting to work properly again. 

Physical activity can be one of the most helpful solutions in treating ileus. In some cases, ileus clears up without any treatment.

Ileus Prognosis

Ileus can be treated successfully, especially if medical attention is sought at the first sign of intestinal blockage.

If left untreated, ileus could lead to tissue death or cause infection in the intestines. Infection is serious and potentially life-threatening.

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