Bowel obstruction occurs when a hernia, tumor, or other foreign body blocks part of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, preventing normal contents such as food from passing through. Foreign bodies that can cause issues vary from gallstones and impacted feces to abnormal tissue growth and overall twisting or narrowing along the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Intestinal blockage can be partial or complete, depending on the extent of bowel obstruction, and can happen in individuals at any age, as well as newborns (in which case the condition is called “paralytic ileus” or “pseudo-obstruction.”
Bowel obstruction is caused by mechanical, inflammatory, chemical or structural problems. It also happens as a result of complications after a surgical procedure, after an injury and after contracting certain gastrointestinal (GI) diseases. In children, bacterial infections, viral attacks and food poisoning can also cause bowel obstruction.
In some circles, bowel obstruction is referred to as a stricture. Strictures cause sections of the colon to narrow, making it difficult for waste to pass through. Strictures oftentimes cause disproportion in areas of the colon as content builds up before the stricture and collapses after it. Sometimes, strictures or colon narrowing can also be a description of general narrowing along the entire lower gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Basically, the same causes of bowel obstruction are feasible causes for colon structures, including twisting, post-surgical scars, inflammatory bowel disease and abnormal tissue growths like colon pouches or colon polyps.
Symptoms of Bowel Obstruction
Bowel obstruction symptoms include swelling or distension in the abdominal area. If you have an obstructed bowel, it is also likely that you will experience constipation, diarrhea and vomiting as a result of poor digestion. It is very important to recognize these symptoms early and be seen by a physician as soon as you notice them.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Bowel Obstruction
If there is an object or foreign body blocking your intestines, your doctor may hear abnormal sounds while examining your abdomen with a stethoscope. These high-pitched indicators of mechanical blockages in the GI tract are, unfortunately, only detectable during the early stages of bowel obstruction. The longer the object stays inside and unattended, the noise becomes less and less noticeable, eventually ceasing to make any noise at all. Your doctor can detect bowel obstruction with tests such as Abdominal CT Scan, Abdominal X-Ray, Barium Enema and GI Series.
If left unattended, bowel obstruction can lead to serious health problems, such as imbalances in the body’s chemical makeup, jaundice and tearing along the gastrointestinal (GI) tract issue. Sometimes, an obstruction will restrict blood flow in that area of the body to the point of killing the tissue and causing infection or gangrene. This more severe symptom usually happens in the most extreme cases only. In infants, it may lead to infections in the lungs and blood cells and has also been known to be fatal. If left untreated, bowel obstructions can require surgery to repair, and can lead to death.
Since cases of bowel obstruction vary widely, treatment always depends on the individual person. For example, people with a tumor or a foreign object in their colon might need to undergo surgery to remove it. Regular screenings with your doctor and remaining aware of changes that occur in your body will help prevent bigger health threats or internal injuries. If you are having trouble passing stool or experiencing any other bowel issues, it is possible that you might have blockages in your gastrointestinal tract. Please contact a medical specialist today if you experience swelling or any other bowel obstruction symptom.
Reviewed 12/12/2011 by David M. Nolan, M.D.
Diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, 2011
Currently a Fellow of Gastroenterology, at UCI 2011-2014