Blocked Intestine

What is an intestinal blockage?

If you have an intestinal blockage, food and stool may not be able to move freely. 

When your intestine works normally, digested food moves from your stomach to your rectum. Along the way, your body breaks food down into usable pieces. The rest is eliminated as stool, or feces.

An intestinal blockage may halt this natural process. A complete blockage is an emergency and needs immediate medical attention.

What causes an intestinal blockage?

The possible reasons for an intestinal blockage are:

  • Abdominal scarring. These are tissue growths that force your intestines out of place.
  • Hernia. A hernia is a split in the muscle wall of your belly. Hernias can cause bulges and pockets. These may block your intestine.
  • Volvulus. This results when a segment of your intestine twists around itself, creating a blockage.
  • Intussusception. In this condition, a segment of your intestine slides into another segment, narrowing, but not necessarily closing, your intestine.
  • Scarring. When your body heals small wounds or cuts, scar tissue forms. This can happen inside your intestine as well. These scars can build up and create partial or total intestinal blockages. Scarring can result from tears in your intestinal wall, or infections.
  • Tumors. These growths can block your intestine.
  • Foreign objects. Nonfood objects that you swallow on purpose or accidentally may cause partial or complete blockage.
  • Meckel diverticulum. A small number of people are born with this additional small pouch inside the intestine.  

What are the risk factors for an intestinal blockage?

You may be at risk of an intestinal blockage if you have:

  • Abdominal surgery. This can increase the risk of scar tissue or other growths.
  • Diverticulosis. With this condition, irritation to the lining of the intestine may cause inflammation, infection, and scarring. This can block the intestine.
  • Cancer
  • Swallowed foreign objects
  • Scar formation. This can result from conditions such as radiation damage and Crohn's disease.

What are the symptoms of an intestinal blockage?

Symptoms of intestinal blockage are:

  • Severe pain in your belly
  • Severe cramping sensations in your belly
  • Throwing up
  • Feelings of fullness or swelling in your belly
  • Loud sounds from your belly
  • Feeling gassy, but being unable to pass gas
  • Being unable to pass stool (constipation)

How is an intestinal blockage diagnosed?

To diagnose your condition, your healthcare provider will consider:

  • Your overall health and medical history
  • Your description of symptoms, including:
    • The location and intensity of any pain
    • Changes in your bowel movements or appetite
    • Any other unusual symptoms, such as digestive sounds or feelings of being bloated
  • A physical exam
  • The results of imaging tests, such as abdominal X-ray, barium contrast study, or CT (computed tomography)

How is an intestinal blockage treated?

Treatment for your intestinal blockage will depend on the cause. If your intestine is completely blocked (no food or stool can move through), immediate surgery is needed. The goal is to remove the blockage and repair your organs.

Many blockages will open up on their own with supportive care. It would be good to avoid surgery since it can sometimes cause more scarring. Your healthcare provider might recommend that you not eat until your symptoms improve or limit you to clear liquids. After this, a “low-residue” diet may be advised to try to get things moving. This diet includes foods and liquids, such as yogurt, which will not add to the blockage.

Your healthcare provider may use a small, flexible tube to take intestinal contents out until the bowel blockage is resolved, instead of more invasive surgery. You will need intravenous fluids and sometimes electrolyte replacement. You may also need pain medicine.

What are the complications of an intestinal blockage?

Complications of intestinal blockage include:

  • Pain
  • Unable to pass stool (constipation)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Inability to keep food or fluids down
  • Fever
  • Infection
  • Death (rare)

Living with an intestinal blockage

Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions. If he or she has advised you to change your diet as part of your treatment, stick to the new plan. The goal of the diet is to reduce the work that your digestive tract has to do, while still giving you the nutrition you need.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

If you have symptoms of intestinal blockage, such as severe belly pain, vomiting, and inability to pass stool, seek immediate medical attention.

Key points about intestinal blockage

  • An intestinal blockage happens when something blocking your intestine.
  • If the intestine is completely blocked, it is a medical emergency needing immediate attention.
  • Symptoms of an intestinal blockage include severe belly pain or cramping, vomiting, not being able to pass stool or gas, and other signs of belly distress.
  • If the intestinal blockage is complete, it will need surgery.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
Online Medical Reviewer: Lehrer, Jenifer, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Walton-Ziegler, Olivia, MS, PA-C
Last Review Date: 10/1/2016
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