What Is Bowel (Intestinal) Obstruction?
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 through 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?
6 Signs and symptoms of a partial bowel obstruction can be similar to large or small intestinal bowel obstruction and may include:
- Abdominal pain/discomfort
- Abdominal distention
What are the Early Signs and Symptoms of Complete Small Bowel (Intestinal) Obstruction?
12 Signs and symptoms of a complete small intestinal bowel obstruction include:
- Cramps and pain in the middle or upper abdomen
- Rumbling bowel noises (borborygmus)
- Abdominal tenderness/belly pain
- Diarrhea (early symptom)
- Abdominal bloating
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling unwell (malaise)
- Inability to have a complete bowel movement
- Blood in the stool
What Are the Later Signs and Symptoms of Complete Small Bowel (Intestinal) Obstruction?
3 Later symptoms of a complete small intestinal bowel obstruction include:
- Rapid heartbeat
What Are the Early Signs and Symptoms of Complete Large Bowel (Intestinal) Obstruction?
11 Signs and Symptoms of large intestinal bowel obstruction (colon obstruction) include:
- Cramps and pain in the lower abdomen especially on the left side
- Lower abdominal distention
- Inability to have a bowel movement
- Inability to pass gas
- Chronic constipation
- Narrow stools
- Rumbling bowel noises (borborygmus) or loud bowel noises
- Diarrhea/liquid stool
- 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:
- 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:
- Congenital atresia (a birth defect that involves absence or narrowing of parts of intestines)
- Pyloric stenosis (narrowing of the opening from the stomach into the intestine that prevents food from entering the intestine)
- 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:
- Sigmoid volvulus
- Ogilvie's Syndrome
- Colon cancer
- Gallstone ileus
Pancreatitis is inflammation of an organ in the abdomen called the pancreas.
What Are the Most Common Causes of Bowel (Intestinal) Obstruction?
Approximately 25 percent of intestinal obstructions are large bowel obstructions.
18 common causes of large bowel obstructions include:
- Abnormal intestinal physiology
- Prior abdominal surgery
- Colorectal cancer
- Other cancers:
- Ischemic colitis
- Fecal impaction from chronic constipation
- Twisting of the colon, called volvulus (often seen in infants and toddlers)
- A swallowed foreign object
- Electrolyte imbalances
- Use of opioids (which can cause constipation)
- 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
- Meconium plug (in newborns)
- Paralytic ileus doesn't involve a physical blockage but can cause signs and symptoms similar to obstruction
- Hirschsprung's disease (a birth defect in which nerve cells are missing from parts of the intestines)
Reviewed on 2/14/2021
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.