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An intestinal obstruction is a potentially serious condition in which the intestines are blocked. The blockage may be either partial or complete, occurring at one or more locations. Both the small intestine and large intestine, called the colon, can be affected. When a blockage occurs, food and drink cannot pass through the body. Obstructions are serious and need to be treated immediately. They may even require surgery.
There are a variety of causes for intestinal obstructions. These can include:
Sometimes there may be no actual obstruction, but the bowels behave as if they are obstructed. This is called pseudo-obstruction. Among its potential causes are:
An intestinal blockage can be an emergency, especially if the intestine is twisted, because it can cut off the blood supply and cause part of the intestine to die. Dehydration can also be a dangerous complication and can lead to organ failure, shock, and death.
Obstruction can be partial, which may resolve without surgery. A complete blockage is more likely to need intestinal surgery.
Mechanical obstructions are when something physically blocks the small intestine. This can be due to:
Though rare, mechanical obstructions can also block the colon, or large intestine. This can be due to:
Nonmechanical delays in transit or obstructions can occur when the muscles or nerves within either the small or large intestine function poorly. This is process is called paralytic ileus if it’s an acute or self-limiting condition. It’s known as intestinal pseudo-obstruction if it becomes chronic. The intestines normally work in a coordinated system of movement. If something interrupts these coordinated contractions, it can cause a functional intestinal obstruction.
Causes for paralytic ileus include:
Intestinal pseudo-obstruction can be caused by:
Unfortunately, the symptoms of intestinal obstruction are common to a variety of problems. It takes time and testing to determine whether an intestinal obstruction exists.
Symptoms can include:
First, a doctor may push on your abdomen. They will then listen with a stethoscope to any sounds being made. The presence of a hard lump or the particular kinds of sound produced, especially in a child, may help determine whether or not an obstruction exists. Other tests include:
Treatment depends on the location and severity of the obstruction.
For partial obstructions or an ileus, it may be possible to treat by simply resting the bowels and giving intravenous (IV) fluids. Bowel rest means you’ll be given nothing to eat, or clear liquids only, during that time.
Treating dehydration is important. IV fluids may be started to correct electrolyte imbalance. A catheter may be inserted into the bladder to remove fluid.
A tube may need to be passed through the nose and down into the throat, stomach, and intestines to relieve:
If your problem is due to the use of narcotic pain medications, your doctor can prescribe medication that reduces the effect of the narcotics on the bowels.
Surgery will be required if these measures fail.
Treatment is essential to reduce complications such as:
If the obstruction is preventing blood from getting to a segment of intestine, this can lead to:
For some patients with a chronic obstruction due to a stricture or narrowing of the intestine, a metal stent that expands inside the intestine may be placed using a long tube called an endoscope. This wire mesh holds open the intestine. The procedure may not require cutting into the abdomen, and it’s usually only used if the patient is not a candidate for traditional surgery.
An intestinal blockage is a potentially serious medical condition. The blockage may be either partial or complete, and it may occur in either the small or large intestine. Depending on its severity, it may prevent food and drink from passing through your body. A complete intestinal blockage is a medical emergency and often requires surgery. Sometimes, a partial blockage may resolve on its own. Medications and various procedures may help. If you think you have a blockage, immediate medical attention is necessary.
Written by: Christine Case-Lo
Medically reviewed on: Sep 07, 2016: Graham Rogers, MD
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