Bowel obstruction is a partial or complete blockage that keeps intestinal contents from passing normally through either your small intestine or your colon. This blockage may be caused by a mechanical obstruction or a functional problem.
Mechanical causes of bowel obstruction include:
- Adhesions or scar tissue that forms after abdominal surgery
- Foreign bodies (ingested materials that might block the intestines)
- Hernia (a hole or tear in the muscle of the abdominal wall that might trap the intestine)
- Impacted stool
- Intussusception (telescoping of one segment of bowel into another)
- Volvulus (twisted intestines)
- Gallstones (a rare occurrence)
Functional problems, also known as paralytic ileus or pseudo-obstruction, are caused when the bowel does not work correctly, but there is no structural problem. Causes may include:
- Gastroenteritis (bacterial or viral intestinal infections)
- Chemical, electrolyte, or mineral imbalances
- Impaired blood supply to the intestines (mesenteric ischemia)
- Infections to other organs inside the abdomen
- Certain medications, such as narcotics
Symptoms of bowel obstruction may include crampy abdominal pain, abdominal bloating, inability to have a bowel movement or pass gas, nausea, and vomiting. Bowel obstruction may lead to severe complications, so you should seek medical attention when you have these symptoms. A thorough examination and some tests, such as abdominal x-rays, CT scan, or x-ray dye studies may be performed to diagnose the obstruction.
Treatment often includes placement of a nasogastric tube (a thin flexible tube passing through the nose into the stomach) that is placed to suction to help relieve the abdominal distention and vomiting. Surgery may be needed to relieve the obstruction if conservative measures do not help.