What You Should Know About a Bowel Obstruction

A bowel obstruction is a blockage in your small or large intestine. It prevents gas and digested food from passing through. That results in swelling in your intestine.

A bowel obstruction is painful. It may also be dangerous and life-threatening if not treated. Thus, it’s important to learn if you’re at risk, so you can identify the symptoms and seek treatment.

Symptoms of a Bowel Obstruction

The symptoms of a bowel obstruction can range from mild to severe. They may come and go and get worse over time. Eventually, you may have continuous pain.

Symptoms vary depending on the blockage location. These are the most common symptoms:

  • Belly pain that comes on suddenly, comes in waves, or is consistent.
  • Abdominal cramps.
  • Bloating or abdominal distention.
  • Not being able to pass gas.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Constipation.
  • Fever.

Note that you might only have one or two of these symptoms depending on the part of your intestine that’s affected.

An obstruction in the large intestine tends to cause milder symptoms that come on gradually. You might have only constipation and a distended abdomen.

Symptoms of small bowel obstructions come on faster — right after the blockage happens. And they’re usually more severe. You can have pain around the area of your belly button, cramping, vomiting, diarrhea and/or constipation.

Severe, steady pain and a tender belly is a very serious symptom. It could signal a lack of blood supply or a perforation (hole) in your intestine. Call your doctor immediately.

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What Causes a Bowel Obstruction?

Scar tissue that builds up in your intestine is a common cause of a bowel obstruction. It can form in your abdomen and between your organs after any type of abdominal surgery. In some cases, scar tissue might cause your intestines to twist, kink, or pull and become blocked.

Other risk factors for a bowel obstruction include:

  • Diverticulitis — pouches that form in your large intestine and get infected.
  • Hernia — a tear in an abdominal tissue or muscle that allows part of your intestine to bulge out and become trapped.
  • Crohn’s disease — chronic inflammation of the digestive tract.
  • A tumor in your abdomen.

People who have had surgery or radiation on the abdomen or pelvis are at the highest risk of having a bowel obstruction. A current or past history of abdominal, intestinal, or colorectal cancer also increases your risk.

Diagnosis and Treatment of a Bowel Obstruction

If you have any bowel obstruction symptoms, and especially if you’ve had abdominal surgery, it’s important to call your doctor. A blockage that’s not treated could cause a serious intestinal catastrophe.

In about 25% of people with a small intestine obstruction, the blockage cuts off the blood supply to their intestine. The lack of blood flow causes the intestinal tissue to die and rupture. That can lead to a serious infection in your blood or even death.

When you see your doctor, they’ll examine you to see if you have tenderness, swelling, or masses in your belly. They may do X-rays or a CT scan to take a picture of your intestines.

If they find a blockage, treatment will depend on the location and extent of the blockage. They can include:

  • Suction with a nasogastric tube. A doctor will place a tube down your nose and into your stomach, and try to suction out the fluids and gas. Sometimes this helps the obstruction to clear on its own.
  • Surgery. If the obstruction does not improve or worsens with supportive measures, or there is recognition of a complication, surgery may be required.

Contact the UPMC Digestive Disorders Center

Bowel obstructions are very serious and need a doctor’s attention. A partial blockage might clear up on its own. But it’s important to have it diagnosed in case it’s a more serious obstruction.

If you think you have symptoms of one, visit the emergency department.

Intestinal Obstruction. Merck Manual.


U.S. National Library of Medicine. Intestinal Obstruction Repair Series Normal Anatomy. Medline Plus.


About Digestive Disorders

UPMC Digestive Health Care cares for a wide range of gastrointestinal (GI) conditions and diseases, from diagnosis to treatment. Whether your digestive condition is common or complicated, our experts can help. Upon referral from your physician, we coordinate your testing and treatment. If you have a complicated condition, we can refer you to one of UPMC’s digestive health centers of excellence. Find a GI doctor near you.