Do I Have a Bowel Obstruction?

Medically reviewed by: Liza M. Capiendo, MD

If your body cannot effectively eliminate stool, the toxic backup can cause serious complications and even death if you do not get medical treatment as soon as possible. Severe abdominal pain is just the first symptom of a bowel obstruction, but when pain is this severe it is time to seek immediate medical care no matter the cause. Getting a diagnosis and beginning treatment as soon as possible will help you heal faster. And if it is a bowel obstruction, quick action may help save your bowel and prevent infection.

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What Is a Bowel Obstruction?

A bowel obstruction is a blockage in the intestines or another similar issue that prevents stool from moving through your small intestine and/or colon. When an obstruction is total and caused by a physical blockage, you will likely be unable to pass even gas through your anus. You may burp or vomit, but you will not have diarrhea or gas.

Some of the most common reasons we see for bowel obstructions in our practice include:

  • Impacted stool that causes a blockage
  • A hernia that involves part of the intestine
  • Adhesions and other complications following abdominal surgery
  • Colon cancer growths that grow undetected
  • Intussusception, especially in children
  • Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or other issues related to inflammatory bowel disease
  • Diverticulitis or other complications related to diverticular disease

What Are the Signs of a Bowel Obstruction?

Bowel obstructions can cause serious pain and other issues that make them difficult to ignore. Still, some people try to write the pain off as gas or other stomach ailments. If you suffer severe abdominal pain and/or cramping along with the inability to pass gas or other symptoms on this list, you need to call your doctor or go the emergency department as soon as possible.

The most common symptoms of a bowel obstruction include:

  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Cramping
  • Constipation
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Bloated, full feeling, and/or swelling of the belly
  • Unusually loud rumbling and growling from the gut
  • Inability to pass gas

Knowing You Have an Increased Risk of a Bowel Obstruction

In some cases, you may be at an increased risk of a bowel obstruction because of other health conditions. You should be aware of this risk, and take action as soon as you experience any symptom that might be an intestinal blockage. The conditions that can increase your risk include:

  • A previous abdominal operation
  • IBD, especially Crohn’s disease
  • Cancer in the colon, or other abdominal cancer
  • Other conditions that affect the muscles and nerves of the bowel

In some cases, bowel obstructions are not caused by a physical blockage. Instead, they occur because of problems with the muscles and nerves in the bowel that keep stool moving and trigger bowel movements. This can happen not only because of medical conditions but because of medications with this side effect as well.

Some of the medications may include:

  • Tricyclic antidepressants
  • Opioid painkillers, including Vicodin and Oxycontin

If you are on one of these medications and suffer any of the symptoms of a bowel obstruction, you need to contact your doctor or go to the nearest emergency room.

Why Is It Important to Get Medical Attention as Soon as Possible?

It is paramount to get medical attention if you believe you or your family member is suffering a bowel obstruction. Untreated, an acute blockage can lead to serious complications quickly. Some of them can be life-threatening. The best way to prevent significant problems and to get relief as soon as possible is to get medical treatment.

Tissue Death and Intestinal Perforation

In some cases, a blockage can not only block stool but also blood flow to the affected area of your bowel. Without adequate blood flow, the bowel can weaken and even die. This section of bowel will likely need to be removed.

A weakened bowel wall can also perforate more easily. This allows stool and other matter to leak from the intestines into the abdomen. Peritonitis, an infection of the abdomen, is likely when this occurs


Bowel perforation and peritonitis are one of the most serious complications of bowel obstruction. This type of infection is life-threatening, and can develop very quickly after a tear occurs. Surgery may be necessary, and a perforation always requires emergency medical care.

What Treatments Are Available for Bowel Obstructions?

When you see your doctor or go to the emergency department, the first thing they do will likely be to complete a physical exam. They may palpate your abdomen to determine exactly where your pain is and to feel for any swelling. They may also listen to your gut with a stethoscope to check for unusual bowel sounds.

An ultrasound or CT scan is usually the next step. This allows them to identify the location of the blockage. In some cases, especially if they believe the obstruction is in the colon, they may conduct a colonoscopy to see what is going on.

In some cases, a colorectal surgeon will be called in to put a tube from your nose into the small intestine to help allow a twist or telescoped portion to straighten out. They may also be able to place a stent to hold the bowel open. Most obstructions that do not clear with another solution require surgery.

Some people whose bowel perforates will need advanced procedures to clean out their abdomen. Your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics to prevent any infection from advancing, as well.

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