Mechanical Bowel Obstruction



The bowel is a muscular tube that is constantly moving to push food through. Blockage may be caused by something blocking the inside of the tube or something that stops the intestine from working well.

Most small bowel blockages are due to scar tissue. This tissue connects the bowel to the abdominal wall or other organs. This makes it hard for the bowel to work as needed. Most large bowel obstructions are caused by tumors.

Other causes of bowel obstructions include:

  • Hernia —part of intestine pokes through abdominal wall and squeezes intestine shut
  • Bowel inflammation or swelling
  • Foreign matter in the intestines
  • Impacted feces—bulk of feces becomes trapped in the rectum
  • Volvulus—twisting of the intestine
  • Intussusception —when the intestine pulls inward into itself , most common cause in children

Risk Factors

Factors that may increase your chances o a bowel obstruction:

  • Previous gastrointestinal or gynecologic surgery—can lead to scarring
  • Diverticulitis
  • Crohn disease
  • Hirschsprung disease —in infants and children
  • Cancer of the gastrointestinal tract



Symptoms of a bowel obstruction include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Severe constipation
  • Bloating
  • Fever
  • Foul breath odor


You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. A stethoscope will be placed on your abdomen to listen for bowel sounds. Absent, or abnormal signs may suggest a bowel obstruction.

Images will be needed to confirm the obstruction. This can be done with one or more of the following:

  • Abdominal x-ray
  • Barium enema
  • Ultrasound
  • CT scan of the abdomen



Bowel obstructions can be serious and life-threatening. Treatment may require hospitalization to provide support:

  • IV fluids to stop dehydration
  • Antibiotics to help clear any infections

The plan to remove the blockage will depend on where it is and what is causing it. Possible treatments include:

  • Nasogastric tube—a tube is passed through your nose and down into the stomach. Fluids that have become trapped can be removed through this tube.
  • Removal of fecal impaction—Feces trapped in the rectum can be manually loosened and removed.
  • Endoscopy—A thin, lighted tube is inserted through the rectum and into the large intestine to straighten out the intestines.
  • Surgery may be needed to:
    • Remove scar tissue, tumors, foreign matter, and other causes of the blockages
    • Repair hernias
    • Remove damaged tissue


Prevention of bowel obstruction depends on the cause. Some bowel obstructions cannot be prevented. To help reduce your chances of a bowel obstruction:

  • Treat hernias promptly before they can cause a blockage.
  • Decrease the chance of constipation by:
    • Eating plenty of fiber -rich foods
    • Drinking plenty of fluids
    • Exercising regularly

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

Edits to original content made by Denver Health.