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Bowel obstruction

3-minute read

A bowel obstruction will cause you serious health problems. People with bowel obstruction usually need to be treated in hospital.

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 to 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.

Causes of 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.

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.

Diagnosis of bowel obstruction

To diagnose bowel obstruction, your doctor will likely:

Treatment of bowel obstruction

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 also 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 here.

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Last reviewed: February 2018

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