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Here’s What Can Cause Bowel Obstructions and How to Treat Them

It’s not uncommon to be constipated from time to time. While constipation can be uncomfortable, it usually clears up with care at home and, maybe, over-the-counter medications. 

A bowel obstruction is more serious. With it, something is completely blocking your bowels, so your digestive system can’t process food properly. You’ll probably have nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, bloating and a lack of appetite. And you’ll notice that you’re not having bowel movements or passing gas.

James Gordon, MD, a gastroenterologist at Banner Health in Sun City West, AZ, explained more about what causes bowel obstructions and how to treat them.

Physical bowel obstruction

Also called a mechanical bowel obstruction, with this type, something is blocking your bowel. 

That could be due to factors such as:

  • Adhesions (bands of scar-like tissue) that can develop after abdominal infection or surgery
  • Internal hernias, where loops of the bowel get stuck so waste can’t pass through
  • Tumors in the intestine
  • Constipation or fecal impaction, where stool gets lodged in your digestive tract

Bowel paralysis

Another type of bowel obstruction, called ileus, occurs when your bowel becomes paralyzed. That can happen if:

  • You have abdominal surgery, especially if you develop an infection
  • You take medication that interferes with your digestive function
  • You have certain infections, such as appendicitis or diverticulitis

Who is at risk?

Older people are more likely to develop these obstructions than younger people. You’re also at higher risk if you have or have had:

  • Crohn’s disease or diverticulitis
  • Hernia
  • Abdominal radiation
  • Scar tissue from surgery
  • Certain gastrointestinal or pelvic cancers, including ovarian, pancreatic, esophageal, colorectal and stomach cancer

What are the symptoms of bowel obstruction?

Whether you have a physical blockage or ileus, you’ll usually have pain in your abdomen, nausea, vomiting, bloating and gas. If your symptoms come and go, you may have a partial blockage. “In that case, you can wait a week or two to see if your symptoms clear up,” Dr. Gordon said. 

But if you’re frequently vomiting or in a lot of pain, you’ll want to seek medical care right away. Call your doctor or go to the emergency room.

How are bowel obstructions diagnosed and treated?

You’ll probably need an abdominal X-ray or CT scan to see what’s causing your symptoms. If those imaging studies don’t identify the cause of your blockage, your health care team may recommend a gastrografin small bowel series. With this test, you drink a dye that can make blockages show up on an X-ray. 

You’ll most likely need treatment in a hospital if you have a bowel obstruction. It’s important to seek care, especially if you have other health conditions. Untreated bowel obstructions can be deadly.

Treatment depends on what’s causing your blockage:

  • Physical obstruction: For a physical obstruction, health care professionals can insert a nasogastric tube, which runs from your nose to your stomach. Fluid and gas can come out of your digestive system through this tube until your bowel starts working again. “Your doctor will watch you for a couple of days,” Dr. Gordon said.
  • Medication: Sometimes, medication can cause ileus, and in those cases, you’ll need to stop taking that medication. Getting upright and walking around can also help with ileus, especially if you’ve been lying down a lot.
  • Constipation: Bowel obstructions caused by constipation can clear up by treating the constipation.

“Surgery is a last resort,” Dr. Gordon said. “Very few people end up needing surgery for physical bowel obstruction, and for ileus, we don’t treat with surgery.”

Can you prevent bowel obstructions?

It’s common to get repeat bowel obstructions, especially if you have a condition like Crohn’s disease. “If you have a history of physical bowel obstructions, you often can’t prevent them, but a low-residue diet (a diet that limits high fiber foods) and medication such as MiraLAX can help make things flow more easily through your bowel,” Dr. Gordon said.

The bottom line

Bowel obstructions occur when something keeps your intestines from working properly, so you can’t pass gas or stool. If you have pain, nausea and vomiting that don’t ease up quickly, seek medical attention since bowel obstructions can be serious. To connect with a health care professional who can help diagnose and treat digestive disorders, reach out to Banner Health. 

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