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Bowel (Intestinal) Obstruction

Reviewed on 12/31/2019

What Is Bowel (Intestinal) Obstruction?

Picture of a medical healthcare professional pushing on a woman's abdomen.
Early signs and symptoms of bowel obstruction include rectal bleeding, diarrhea, and belly cramps.

Bowel obstruction, also called intestinal obstruction, is a partial or complete blockage of the small or large intestine that results in food or fecal matter being unable to move thorough the intestines

A complete bowel obstruction can be a dangerous condition that can lead to dehydration, kidney failure, tears in the intestinal walls, which can cause abdominal infections, and death of parts of the intestines. 

What Is Partial Bowel (Intestinal) Obstruction?

A partial bowel obstruction is when the passage of stool is hindered, but not completely stopped. Partial bowel obstructions need to be treated promptly so they do not develop into total obstructions.

What Are the Early Signs and Symptoms of Bowel (Intestinal) Obstruction?

Signs and symptoms of a partial bowel obstruction can be similar to large or small intestinal bowel obstruction and may include:

  1. Abdominal pain/discomfort
  2. Nausea
  3. Vomiting
  4. Abdominal distention
  5. Constipation
  6. Diarrhea

What are the Early Signs and Symptoms of Complete Small Bowel (Intestinal) Obstruction?

Signs and symptoms of a complete small intestinal bowel obstruction include: 

  1. Cramps and pain in the middle or upper abdomen
  2. Nausea 
  3. Vomiting
  4. Rumbling bowel noises (borborygmus)
  5. Abdominal tenderness/belly pain
  6. Diarrhea (early symptom) 
  7. Abdominal bloating 
  8. Loss of appetite
  9. Dehydration
  10. Feeling unwell (malaise)
  11. Inability to have a complete bowel movement
  12. Blood in the stool

What Are the Later Signs and Symptoms of Complete Small Bowel (Intestinal) Obstruction?

Later symptoms of a complete small intestinal bowel obstruction include:

  1. Constipation 
  2. Fever 
  3. Rapid heartbeat 

What Are the Early Signs and Symptoms of Complete Large Bowel (Intestinal) Obstruction?

Large intestinal bowel obstruction (colon obstruction) signs and symptoms include: 

  1. Cramps and pain in the lower abdomen especially on the left side
  2. Lower abdominal distention
  3. Inability to have a bowel movement
  4. Inability to pass gas
  5. Chronic constipation
  6. Narrow stools
  7. Nausea 
  8. Vomiting
  9. Rumbling bowel noises (borborygmus) or loud bowel noises
  10. Diarrhea/liquid stool 
  11. Abdominal bloating and abdominal swelling

When Should You Call a Doctor for Bowel Obstruction?

If you have any symptoms you suspect could be a bowel obstruction, seek medical care immediately as a bowel obstruction can be a dangerous condition that can lead to serious medical problems such as kidney failure, tears in the intestinal walls which can cause abdominal infections, and death of parts of the intestines.

Call your doctor or seek immediate medical care for a bowel obstruction if you experience symptoms such as:

  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • New or worsening abdominal pain
  • Severe abdominal distension, bloating or swelling
  • You are unable to have a bowel movement or pass gas

What Are Common Causes of Small Bowel Obstruction in Children?

In children, common causes of small bowel obstruction include:

  1. Congenital atresia (a birth defect that involves absence or narrowing of parts of intestines)
  2. Pyloric stenosis (narrowing of the opening from the stomach into the intestine that prevents food from entering the intestine)
  3. Intussusception (part of the intestine folds into an adjacent segment)

What Causes Bowel Obstruction in the Elderly?

In the elderly, common causes of bowel obstruction include:

  1. Sigmoid volvulus
  2. Ogilvie's Syndrome
  3. Colon cancer 
  4. Gallstone ileus


Super Tips to Boost Digestive Health: Bloating, Constipation, and More See Slideshow

What Are the Most Common Types of Bowel (Intestinal) Obstruction?

Approximately 25 percent of intestinal obstructions are large bowel obstructions.

Causes of large bowel obstructions include:

  1. Abnormal intestinal physiology 
  2. Prior abdominal surgery 
  3. Colorectal cancer
  4. Other cancers: 
    1. Pancreatic cancer
    2. Ovarian cancer
    3. Lymphoma
  5. Diverticulosis
  6. Ischemic colitis
  7. Fecal impaction from chronic constipation 
  8. Twisting of the colon, called volvulus (often seen in infants and toddlers) 
  9. A swallowed foreign object
  10. Diabetes
  11. Hypothyroidism
  12. Infections
  13. Electrolyte imbalances
  14. Use of opioids (which can cause constipation)
  15. Conditions that can cause rectal stenosis (or stricture formation, which is narrowing of intestines), suppository use, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) - Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis (UC), tuberculosis, radiotherapy, endometriosis
  16. Meconium plug (in newborns)
  17. Paralytic ileus doesn't involve a physical blockage but can cause signs and symptoms similar to obstruction
  18. Hirschsprung's disease (a birth defect in which a nerve cells are missing from parts of the intestines)

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Diverticulitis (Diverticular Disease) vs. Ulcerative Colitis Differences in Signs and Symptoms

Diverticular disease signs and symptoms include:

  • Belly pain
  • Abdominal Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Cramping
  • Occasionally diarrhea

Diverticulitis is a more serious condition and causes symptoms in most people with the condition that include:

  • Abdomen pain, usually on the lower left side
  • Bright red or maroon blood in the stool
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Burning or pain during urination

Common ulcerative colitis or UC signs and symptoms include:

  • Bowel incontinence (loss of bowel control)
  • Lethargy
  • Anemia
  • Weight loss
  • Vision problems or eye pain
Reviewed on 12/31/2019
Mityanand Ramnarine, MD, FACEP, et al. Small-Bowel Obstruction. Medscape. Updated: Apr 28, 2017.

The Doctors' at UpToDate. Patient education: Small bowel obstruction (The Basics). UpToDate. Updated: Nov 25, 2019.

Yeh, DD, MD, et al. Overview of mechanical colorectal obstruction. UpToDate. Updated: Jun 03, 2019.