Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Bowel obstruction

5-minute read

What is bowel obstruction?

Bowel obstruction (also called intestinal obstruction) refers to when something prevents the normal movement of food and liquids through your bowel (intestines). It can happen to people of all ages, and for a variety of reasons.

The blockage in your digestive system can be:

  • either in the small intestine or the large intestine
  • partial, meaning the intestine is partly blocked, or complete, meaning it is fully blocked and not even gas can get through
  • simple, meaning it is just a blockage, or complicated, meaning the blockage has caused other problems

It’s important to get medical treatment straight away if you have signs of a bowel obstruction because it can lead to very serious complications.

What are the symptoms of bowel obstruction?

The symptoms of bowel obstruction depend on where the obstruction is, and the cause. Generally, symptoms come on within hours, although if a disease like diverticulitis or bowel cancer is the cause, symptoms might take weeks to develop.

The main symptoms of bowel obstruction are:

If you have signs of bowel obstruction, seek medical attention straight away.

What causes bowel obstruction?

There are many reasons for bowel obstruction. Depending on your age and medical history, you might be more susceptible to certain types of bowel obstruction.

In babies, bowel obstruction can be caused by:

  • a birth defect
  • a twisted or malformed section of intestine
  • intestinal contents that have hardened and formed a blockage

In adults, common causes of bowel obstruction are:

  • adhesions — scar-like bands of tissue that can form after abdominal or pelvic surgery
  • tumours — bowel cancer (colon cancer)
  • hernias

Less frequently, bowel obstruction can be caused by:

There is also a type of bowel obstruction known as 'pseudo-obstruction'. This is when the bowel is not working properly because of something other than a physical blockage. Possible causes include a muscle or nerve disorder, intestinal surgery or infection, or certain medications.

How is bowel obstruction diagnosed?

To diagnose bowel obstruction, your doctor will likely:

How is bowel obstruction treated?

Treatment for bowel obstruction depends on the cause, but you will need to go to hospital.

While in hospital, you might have the following procedures:

  • Your urine output may be monitored.
  • You may be given fluids through an intravenous drip.
  • You may receive pain relief and anti-nausea medicines.
  • A nasogastric tube may be inserted through your nose and down into your stomach (but usually only if there is severe bloating or vomiting).
  • Other procedures, such as colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy, may be done.
  • You may need to discuss the need for surgery.

Sometimes surgery needs to be done immediately; sometimes, other treatments are used before it’s decided that surgery is necessary. However, surgery may not be needed at all.

If the obstruction is caused by bowel cancer, surgery might be needed to remove the affected part of the bowel. Read more about bowel cancer.

Can bowel obstruction be prevented?

Some types of bowel obstruction cannot be prevented, but after experiencing a bowel obstruction there are ways to help decrease the chance of experiencing one again.

Follow a diet low in insoluble fibre, which is the hard and rough part of plants we eat. For example, fruit and vegetable skin and some nuts and seeds. Also, it is important to cook your food well, avoid tough and stringy food, and chew well before swallowing. These tips can help stop food forming blockages in narrower parts of the bowel.

It can be helpful to discuss this with a dietitian.

There are also ways to prevent some of the causes of bowel obstruction.

Eating a balanced diet from the 5 food groups can help lower your risk of developing bowel cancer and hernias. Also, avoiding smoking and drinking alcohol within the recommended guidelines can decrease your bowel cancer risk. Constipation can be avoided by staying hydrated so drink water throughout the day and eat a balanced diet.

If you have a disease like inflammatory bowel disease, it is important to follow your doctor’s instructions to try and keep the condition under control.

Resources and support

If you need to know more about bowel obstruction, and to get advice on what to do next, call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 to speak with a registered nurse, 24 hours, 7 days a week.

National Bowel Cancer Screening Program

Go to cancerscreening.gov.au to get a bowel screening test kit.

Information in other languages

Do you prefer other languages to English?

More information

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: April 2020


Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Inflammatory Bowel diseases - Lab Tests Online AU

Inflammatory bowel diseases are chronic swelling and damage to tissues lining the intestinal tract.

Read more on Lab Tests Online AU website

Bowel cancer | Garvan Institute of Medical Research

Bowel cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancerous) cells form a growth in the lining of the large bowel. Read about Garvan's genomic research and innovative studies of cancerous disease.

Read more on Garvan Institute of Medical Research website

Treatment of irritable bowel syndrome | Australian Prescriber

Irritable bowel syndrome is not a diagnosis of exclusion and certain clinical features should prompt further investigation.

Read more on Australian Prescriber website

How your food is digested - myDr.com.au

The digestive system is a series of hollow organs such as the stomach and small intestine. Digestion starts in the mouth with the production of enzymes.

Read more on myDr website

Barium enema: lower bowel examination - myDr.com.au

Barium enema is an X-ray test that allows your doctor to examine the lower part of your bowel.

Read more on myDr website

Peptic ulcer - Lab Tests Online AU

Peptic ulcer are holes in the lining of the stomach and small intestine, caused by a bacterial infection.

Read more on Lab Tests Online AU website

Crohn's disease: symptoms, causes and treatments

Crohn's disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease that causes symptoms such as diarrhoea and cramping abdominal pain. While there is currently no cure, there are treatments available.

Read more on myDr website

Diverticular disease and diverticulitis - myDr.com.au

Diverticulitis happens when out-pouchings in the bowel wall called diverticula become inflamed or infected, due to faecal matter becoming lodged in the pouches.

Read more on myDr website

Constipation - Better Health Channel

Most cases of constipation are treated by eating a diet high in fibre, drinking more fluids, and exercising daily.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Barium swallow (esophagram) x-ray test information | myVMC

Barium is a chalky substance that, once swallowed, can be viewed by x-ray in the stomach and oesophagus to assess conditions like reflux and abdominal pain.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo