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

9-minute read

Go to your nearest hospital emergency department straight away if you have symptoms of a bowel obstruction. Some types of bowel obstruction can lead to very serious complications and even death.

Key facts

  • A bowel obstruction (blockage) is when food and liquids can't move through your intestines (gut).
  • It can be caused by many things, most commonly tumours such as bowel cancer, or other health conditions, such as hernias and adhesions.
  • Bowel obstructions usually cause cramping, abdominal pain, vomiting and inability to pass bowel motions (faeces or poo) or gas.
  • A bowel obstruction is an emergency and needs treatment in hospital to prevent serious complications.
  • You may need surgery or another procedure to remove the blockage.

What is a bowel obstruction?

Bowel obstruction (also called intestinal obstruction) is when something blocks the normal movement of food and liquids through your bowel (intestines). It can happen for a variety of reasons.

There are different types of bowel obstruction. A blockage in your digestive system can be:

  • in the small intestine or the large intestine
  • partial (meaning your bowel is partly blocked and some faeces (poo) can still get through) or complete (meaning it is fully blocked and not even gas can get through)
  • simple (just a blockage) or complicated (meaning the blockage has cut off your bowel's blood supply and caused damage to your bowel)

What are the symptoms of bowel obstruction?

Go to your local hospital emergency department straight away if you have symptoms of a bowel obstruction. Some types of bowel obstruction can lead to very serious complications and even death.

The symptoms of a bowel obstruction depend on where the blockage is and the cause.

Small bowel obstruction

Symptoms of a small bowel obstruction come on quickly. You may notice:

If your pain is severe and constant, this may mean the blockage is affecting the blood supply to your bowel.

Large bowel obstruction

Symptoms of a large bowel obstruction come on gradually and are usually less severe. You may notice:

  • constipation that gets worse until you can't pass any bowel motions or gas
  • bloating
  • cramps in your lower abdomen
  • vomiting — this is uncommon and may start after the other symptoms

However, in some cases a large bowel obstruction can cause sudden constant pain. It depends on what is causing the obstruction.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

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 adults, the most common causes of bowel obstruction are:

  • adhesions — these are scar-like bands of tissue that can form between organs that shouldn't be connected, usually after abdominal or pelvic surgery
  • tumours
  • hernias

Other causes include:

What is a pseudo-obstruction?

This is different type of bowel obstruction, also known as a functional bowel obstruction. This occurs when your bowel muscles are not contracting properly and can't push faeces along, even though there is no physical blockage.

It causes the same symptoms as a mechanical (physical) bowel obstruction.

Possible causes include:

  • abdominal surgery
  • injuries
  • a muscle or nerve disorder
  • abdominal infection
  • some medicines, such as opioids
  • low potassium

How will my bowel obstruction be diagnosed?

To diagnose bowel obstruction, your doctor will likely:

  • ask you questions about your health and symptoms
  • examine your abdomen
  • refer you for blood tests
  • refer you for x-rays or a CT scan of your abdomen

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

What treatment will I need?

Treatment for bowel obstruction depends on the cause. You will usually need to go to hospital for treatment and monitoring.

While in hospital, you might have the following treatment:

  • Your urine output may be monitored.
  • You may get fluids through an intravenous (IV) 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 you have severe bloating or vomiting).
  • Other procedures, such as colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy, may be done.
  • You may need to have surgery.

Some people need to have surgery immediately. Some people are treated with IV fluids and medicines for 2 or 3 days before having surgery if they are not getting better. However, some people don't need surgery at all.

If your obstruction is caused by bowel cancer, you might need surgery to remove the affected part of your bowel.

How can I prevent bowel obstruction?

There are some types of bowel obstruction you can't prevent, but there are ways to help lower your chance of your bowel becoming blocked.


If your bowels are normal, fibre is good for you. However, if you know that parts of your bowel are narrowed, you should follow a diet low in insoluble fibre. Insoluble fibre is the hard and rough part of plants that we eat, such as fruit and vegetable skin, whole grains and some nuts and seeds. This type of fibre can get stuck in narrow parts of the bowel.

You can avoid insoluble fibre by:

  • peeling, cooking or finely cutting up fruit and vegetables and removing their seeds
  • eating white bread, pasta and rice rather than wholegrain
  • avoiding nuts and seeds

This type of diet can increase your risk of constipation. To prevent this, make sure to drink lots of water and get some exercise. Talk to your doctor about whether you might need a laxative medicine.

Also, it is important to cook your food well, avoid tough and stringy food, and chew well before swallowing.

It may be helpful to discuss your diet and nutrition with a dietitian.

Preventing causes

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

It's important to avoid smoking, to lower your risk of developing bowel cancer or a hernia.

You can also lower your risk of bowel cancer by:

  • including dairy products, whole grains and fibre in your diet and limiting red meat and processed meats
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • getting 30 minutes of exercise most days
  • limiting alcohol to less than 2 drinks a day
  • having screening tests for bowel cancer

If you have a bowel condition such as Crohn's disease, it is important to follow your doctor's instructions to try and keep the condition under control.

Resources and support

For more about bowel obstruction or get advice on what to do next, call healthdirect on 1800 022 2221800 022 222 to speak to a nurse 24 hours, 7 days a week.

If you are concerned about bowel cancer, find out here about how to get a bowel screening test kit. You can also visit Bowel Cancer Australia for more information.

For more resources in languages other than English, you can find more information here:

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

Last reviewed: September 2022

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Treatment for early bowel cancer - Cancer Council Victoria

The most common treatment is surgery. You may also have chemotherapy, targeted therapies and radiotherapy, which will be coordinated by your oncologist.

Read more on Cancer Council Victoria website

Bowel stomas | Health and wellbeing | Queensland Government

Bowel stomas are surgically-created connections between the intestines and the abdominal wall. A bowel stoma may be created as a permanent or temporary conduit to allow faeces to exit the body before it reaches the anus.

Read more on Queensland Health website

Short bowel syndrome - Better Health Channel

A person with short bowel syndrome is likely to be deficient in a range of important nutrients.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

How your food is digested -

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

Alkaline Phosphatase (ALP) | Pathology Tests Explained

Alkaline phosphatase (ALP) is an enzyme found in high levels in bone and liver with smaller amounts found in the intestines. Small amounts of ALP are also fo

Read more on Pathology Tests Explained website

Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis - Better Health Channel

When people with inflammatory bowel disease are not experiencing a flare-up of their illness, they feel quite well and are often free of symptoms.

Read more on Better Health Channel 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

Surgical Treatment | Surgery for IBD -

Surgical Treatment: Surgery for IBD sometimes requires surgery as a means of controlling symptoms or dealing with IBD-related complications

Read more on website

Crohns Disease | Gastroduodenal Disease -

Crohns disease is a form of IBD wherein inflammation can affect any part of the digestive tract, from the mouth to the anus.

Read more on website

Diverticular disease and diverticulitis -

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

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 Queensland Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.