A mechanical bowel obstruction is a partial or complete blockage in the intestine, which is also called the bowel. Blockages can occur at any point along the small or large bowel. They are more common in the small bowel. When the bowel is blocked, food and liquid cannot pass through. Over time, food, liquid, and gas build up in the area above the blockage.
Most small bowel blockages are due to adhesions. An adhesion is a band of scar tissue that causes the bowel to attach to the abdominal wall or other organs. Most large bowel obstructions are caused by tumors.
Specific causes of bowel obstructions include:
Factors that increases your chance of getting a bowel obstruction include anything that is likely to cause scar tissue or a blockage, such as:
Symptoms of a bowel obstruction include:
Complications from an untreated obstruction can include strangulation, which is cutting off the blood supply to part of the intestine.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Your doctor will place a stethoscope on your abdomen to listen for bowel sounds. If the normal bowel sounds are absent, or if high pitched, tinkling sounds are present, it may be an indication of bowel obstruction. Further testing may include:
Bowel obstructions can be serious, even fatal. If your doctor thinks you have a bowel obstruction, you will be hospitalized and treated. Your treatment will depend on what part of your bowel is blocked and what is causing the blockage.
Possible treatments include the following:
During surgery, the blocked part of the bowel may be removed. The remaining sections will then be joined together. You will probably need a nasogastric tube temporarily after surgery. In addition, you may need antibiotics and pain medication during recovery.
If you are diagnosed with a mechanical bowel obstruction, follow your doctor's instructions.
Prevention of bowel obstruction depends on the cause. Some bowel obstructions cannot be prevented. The following actions may help reduce your risk of a bowel obstruction:
American College of Gastroenterology
National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Disorders
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
Abdominal adhesions and bowel obstruction. University of California, San Francisco website. Available at: http://surgery.ucsf.edu/conditions--procedures/bowel-obstruction.aspx. Accessed March 21, 2013.
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Essential surgical care manual: intestinal obstruction. World Health Organization website. Available at: http://www.steinergraphics.com/surgical/003_07.2.html. Accessed March 21, 2013.
Jackson P, Raiji M. Evaluation and management of intestinal obstruction. Am Fam Physician. 2011 Jan 15;83(2):159-165.
Last reviewed December 2013 by Daus Mahnke, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.