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Blocked Intestine

What is an intestinal blockage?

If you have an intestinal blockage, food and stool may not be able to move freely. It is also called an intestinal obstruction. 

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. This causes your intestine to narrow, but not necessarily be fully blocked.

  • 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. These scars are called adhesions and happen in your abdomen after you've had abdominal or pelvic surgery. Sometimes adhesions from a surgery can cause problems many years after the surgery.

  • Tumors.These growths can block your intestine.

  • Swallowed objects.Nonfood objects that you swallow may cause part or full blockage.

  • Meckel diverticulum.A small number of people are born with this extra small pouch inside the intestine.  

Who is at risk for an intestinal blockage?

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

  • Abdominal surgery, which can increase the risk of scar tissue or other growths

  • Diverticulosis, which may cause inflammation, infection, and scarring and block the intestine

  • Cancer

  • Swallowed objects

  • Scars from things such as radiation damage or 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 health history

  • 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.

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 cleared, instead of more invasive surgery. You will need intravenous fluids and may need electrolyte replacement. You may also need pain medicine.

If your intestine is fully blocked (no food or stool can move through), immediate surgery is needed. The goal is to remove the blockage and repair your organs.

What are possible complications of an intestinal blockage?

Complications of intestinal blockage can 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, get medical care right away.

Key points about intestinal blockage

  • An intestinal blockage happens when something blocks 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.

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: Jen Lehrer MD
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 3/1/2019
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