Small bowel obstruction means the small intestine is partially or totally blocked. When this happens, the contents of the intestine cannot properly get out of the body. Stools, fluid, and gas build up inside the intestine. This is a potentially serious condition that requires urgent medical care.
Bowel obstruction may be caused by a mechanical problem. In this case, something inside the body blocks the movement of material through the intestine.
It can also be caused by an ileus, which is when the intestine itself does not work right. This nonmechanical type of obstruction is called paralytic ileus, or pseudo-obstruction. It is often the cause of obstruction in infants and children.
Mechanical small bowel obstruction may be caused by:
Paralytic ileus may be caused by surgery on the intestine or certain medications, such as opioids.
Factors that may increase your chance of having a small bowel obstruction include:
Symptoms of small bowel obstruction often occur in combination. Small bowel obstruction may cause:
Paralytic ileus pain is often less severe than mechanical small bowel obstruction.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The exam will include listening for bowel sounds in your stomach. Very high pitched bowel sounds heard through a stethoscope suggest mechanical bowel obstruction. Conversely, paralytic ileus often produces no bowel sounds.
Imaging tests are used to evaluate abdominal structures. These may include:
Treatment depends on the cause and severity of the obstruction. You will usually require treatment by a specialist. Your doctor will also treat you for any underlying conditions that contribute to small bowel obstruction.
Before any surgical treatment or procedure can begin, you may need to be stabilized. This may include:
After the blockage is relieved, nutrition is administered through an IV or feeding tube until you are able to eat solid foods. Other treatment for small bowel obstruction includes:
Medications may include:
Surgery may be needed if you do not respond to medical treatment, or in the following circumstances:
National Cancer Institute
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Canadian Association of Gastroenterology
Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of Canada
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Last reviewed February 2014 by Michael Woods, 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.