Mechanical Bowel Obstruction

Overview

Definition

A mechanical bowel obstruction is a partial or complete blockage in the intestine. It can happen at any point along the intestine tract but it is more common in the small bowel. The small bowel is the upper part of the intestines and the large bowel is the lower part.

When the bowel is blocked, food and liquid cannot pass through. Over time, food, liquid, and gas build up and cause pressure and pain. Some obstructions, when left untreated, can cut off the flow of blood to the intestine. This can lead to death of the intestine tissue and serious illness.

Mechanical Bowel Obstruction
Nucleus factsheet image
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Causes

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

SymptomsandDiagnosis

Symptoms

Symptoms of a bowel obstruction include:

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

Diagnosis

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

Treatments

Treatment

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

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.

RESOURCES

American College of Gastroenterology http://gi.org 

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases https://www.niddk.nih.gov 

CANADIAN RESOURCES

Canadian Digestive Health Foundation http://www.cdhf.ca 

Health Canada https://www.canada.ca 

References

Acute intestinal pseudo-obstruction. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:  http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114336/Acute-intestinal-pseudo-obstruction . Updated July 12, 2014. Accessed January 9, 2018.

Bowel obstruction. UCSF Department of Surgery website. Available at: https://surgery.ucsf.edu/conditions--procedures/bowel-obstruction.aspx. Updated June 6, 2016. Accessed January 9, 2018.

Jackson P, Raiji M. Evaluation and management of intestinal obstruction. Am Fam Physician. 2011;83(2):159-165.