Despite being potentially lifesaving, bowel obstruction surgery is associated with a high rate of death during surgery or shortly after the procedure.

If left untreated, bowel obstruction can be life threatening. Emergency surgery may be needed to fix whatever is causing the blockage.

Bowel obstruction surgeries can range from minimally invasive to extensive. Some of these procedures are associated with high rates of complications or death. The mortality rate is the percentage of people who die during the procedure or shortly after.

Keep reading to learn more about the survival rates of bowel obstruction surgery and factors that increase the risk of severe complications.

Surgery is usually more effective the sooner it is initiated after symptoms begin.

For example, an obstructed bowel cutting off the blood supply to your intestines has a death rate of nearly 100% if left untreated. But the death rate is less than 10% if it’s surgically treated within 24 to 48 hours.

Overall survival rate

People who require emergency bowel obstruction surgery tend to have a relatively high chance of death or complications either during surgery or shortly after.

About 5% to 30% of people with small intestinal obstruction die within 30 days, according to a 2022 study. The rate is between 10% and 20% for large bowel obstruction.

In a 2016 study, researchers found that the 30-day and 90-day mortality rates for 323 people undergoing emergency laparotomy for small bowel obstruction were 13% and 17%, respectively. Emergency laparotomy is when a surgeon cuts into your abdomen to fix a problem.

Researchers also found that 28% of people had major complications within 30 days.

Age as a risk factor

The chances of dying after receiving bowel obstruction surgery seem to be lower among younger people.

In a 2022 study, researchers examined the survival rate of people 40 to 74 years old and people over the age of 75 who were treated for bowel obstruction between 2009 and 2019.

Researchers found people in the younger group had an in-hospital death rate of 8.9% compared with 18.2% for people in the older group. Researchers also found younger people had:

  • shorter hospital stays
  • lower complication rates
  • less bowel removal
  • less chance of needing a stoma

Survival rate in older adults

Older adults tend to have poorer outlooks after bowel obstruction surgery than younger adults.

In the 2016 study mentioned above, researchers found that each 10-year increase in age was associated with a 30% higher chance of dying within 30 days of surgery.

In a 2021 study, researchers found that the death rate of bowel obstruction surgery was significantly higher in women than men over the age of 65. The mortality rate was 10.6% in women and 2.6% in men.

Besides age, one of the most important factors for determining the chances of surviving bowel obstruction surgery is how quickly treatment is begun.

In a 2018 study, researchers examined the outcomes of 9,991 people who underwent an emergency laparotomy between December 2013 and November 2015 to treat small bowel obstruction.

The overall death rate was 7.2% within 30 days. Surgery delayed more than 72 hours was associated with a 39% higher chance of dying within 30 days.

Other risk factors

In the 2016 study mentioned earlier, researchers found the top risk factors for severe complications were:

Factors associated with the highest chance of death were:

The recovery period after bowel obstruction surgery can be long and difficult. Some people only spend 3 to 7 days in the hospital, but you may have to stay longer if you had extensive emergency surgery.

In the 2022 study mentioned above, researchers reported the average length of time in the hospital as follows:

TimeAges 40–74Ages 75 and over
time in intensive care unit (ICU)17 hours49 hours
time in hospital15.2 days20.8 days

Even after getting discharged, it’s possible to develop complications. It’s important to contact your healthcare professional if you experience any concerning symptoms, such as:

More than 70% of small bowel obstructions are successfully treated with conservative methods. You may need bowel obstruction surgery if:

  • more conservative options aren’t effective
  • you have a total or severe blockage
  • you have reoccurring blockages
  • you have signs of ischemia or perforation (loss of blood flow to intestines or a hole in your intestines)

Bowel obstruction can block blood flow to your intestines. It can lead to the death of tissues and potentially life threatening complications like:

Suspected bowel obstructions always need prompt medical attention. Surgery isn’t always needed, but a bowel obstruction always needs to be treated by medical professionals.

Your healthcare team will decide whether you need surgery based on the cause and severity of your obstruction. Nonsurgical treatments may be recommended first.

Nonsurgical management may include:

  • waiting to see whether it resolves by itself
  • avoiding food
  • removing food and air from your stomach and intestines with nasogastric suction or an intestinal tube
  • intravenous fluid administration
  • a catheter to drain urine from your bladder

Bowel obstruction is a potentially life threatening condition. It’s characterized by a blockage in your small or large intestine. Emergency surgery may be needed to treat bowel obstruction if you have a complete blockage or if more conservative treatments aren’t effective.

Bowel obstruction surgery is associated with high rates of complications and death. It’s critical to always seek medical attention if you think you may have a bowel obstruction.

You can learn more about the symptoms of bowel obstruction here.