Intestinal Obstruction

Written by Kristeen Moore | Published on July 27, 2012
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP

What Is Intestinal Obstruction?

Intestinal obstruction occurs when there is a blockage of your small or large intestine. The blockage prevents the passage of fluid or digested food. The blockage may be partial or total.

There are many potential causes of intestinal obstruction. In many cases, this condition can’t be prevented. Early diagnosis and treatment is crucial; an untreated intestinal obstruction can be fatal.

Symptoms of Intestinal Obstruction

This condition causes a wide range of uncomfortable symptoms, including:

  • severe bloating
  • abdominal pain
  • decreased appetite
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • severe abdominal cramps
  • abdominal swelling

Intestinal obstruction may also cause bad breath and a high fever.

Causes of Intestinal Obstruction

Intestinal obstructions are either the result of something blocking part of the intestine (mechanical) or a failure of the intestine to work properly (paralytic ileus). There are a variety of causes of intestinal obstruction:

  • strangulated hernia -part of your small intestine protrudes through your abdominal wall
  • inflammatory disease like Crohn’s disease - swelling and scar tissue causes a narrowing of your intestine
  • adhesions - scar tissue from a previous abdominal surgery
  • colon cancer - tumor blocks the intestine
  • Parkinson’s disease - severe constipation leads to impacted bowel
  • gallstones - can press against your intestine, blocking the flow of its contents
  • volvulus – a twist or knot in your intestine
  • intussuception - one section of your intestine collapses into another
  • ingesting foreign objects (rare)
  • paralytic ileus - usually happens after abdominal surgery; your intestine temporarily ceases contracting and moving its contents along

Intestinal obstruction in infants typically arises from infections, organ diseases, and decreased blood flow to the intestines (strangulation). It is generally considered a birth defect that requires prompt treatment. According to Merck Manuals, strangulation of part of the intestine causes 25 percent of all intestinal obstruction cases (Merck Manuals).

Diagnosis of Intestinal Obstruction

First your doctor will take your medical history and perform a physical exam. He or she may be able to detect the obstruction by listening to your abdominal area with a stethoscope. Your doctor may also notice that your abdomen is extremely swollen or that there is a lump in the area.

He or she will use computerized tomography (CT) scans and X-rays of your abdomen to locate the site of your obstruction and to determine its cause. If your obstruction is located in your large intestine, your doctor may use a colonoscopy (a flexible, lighted viewing tube) to inspect your intestine. To provide a clear image of your colon, X-rays may be taken after you’ve been given an enema that uses barium or Hypaque to provide contrast.

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Treating Intestinal Obstruction

An intestinal obstruction is a medical emergency that requires prompt medical treatment. Do not attempt to treat the problem at home. The appropriate treatment depends on the type of intestinal obstruction.

Initially, a flexible tube may be passed through your nose or mouth to remove fluid and gas. This will relieve the swelling of your belly. Most intestinal obstructions require surgery. You will be given fluids intravenously for as many as six to eight hours to relieve dehydration by restoring electrolyte levels in the body and to prevent shock during surgery. This therapy is typically administered in the hospital or at other certified health care facilities. .

If the affected part of your intestine has died, the surgeon will perform a resection, removing the dead tissue and joining the two healthy ends of the intestine.

Outlook for Intestinal Obstruction

When left untreated, intestinal obstruction can cause the affected portion of your intestine to die. Tissue death can lead to perforation of your intestine, severe infection, and shock.

Overall, the outlook of your condition depends on its cause. While most cases of intestinal obstruction are treatable, other causes, such as cancer, ultimately require long-term treatment and monitoring.

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