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:
- bloating, cramps and pain in the abdomen
- loss of appetite
- constipation (or diarrhoea if there is a partial blockage)
- inability to pass gas
- nausea and vomiting
- generally feeling sick
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)
Less frequently, bowel obstruction can be caused by:
- inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease
- twisting of the colon, known as a volvulus
- severe constipation
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:
- ask you questions about your health
- examine your abdomen
- run some blood tests
- use imaging, such as x-rays, a CT scan or an ultrasound
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 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).
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?
- Health Translations — Constipation
- Health Translations — Bowel cancer
- Health Translations — Healthy diet and bowels
- Health Translations — Watch Do the bowel home screening test. It could save your life — video.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: April 2020