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.
Bowel obstruction can also be caused by an ileus, which is when the bowel 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 has many possible causes, including:
Paralytic ileus may be caused by:
A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition. The following factors increase your chances of developing small bowel obstruction. If you have any of these risk factors, tell your doctor:
If you experience any of these symptoms, do not assume it is due to a small bowel obstruction. These symptoms may be caused by other, less serious health conditions. However, if they are severe or persistent, consult your doctor. In the case of small bowel obstruction, symptoms often occur in combination.
The symptoms for “mechanical” small bowel obstruction include:
The symptoms of paralytic ileus include:
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. The exam will include listening for bowel sounds in your stomach. Very high pitched bowel sounds heard through a stethoscope suggest mechanical bowel obstruction, whereas paralytic ileus often produces no bowel sounds. Your doctor may recommend that you see a gastroenterologist or surgeon depending on the suspected diagnosis.
Tests may include the following:
If small bowel obstruction is present, expect to be hospitalized. Treatment options include:
At the hospital the doctors will watch closely to see if the blockage will get better on its own, which is often the case in the event of a paralytic ileus. No food will be allowed and fluids will be given through an IV (intravenous) tube.
A tube is inserted through the nose and into the stomach to remove fluids and gas, which can promptly relieve pain and pressure.
Surgery is often required to relieve mechanical blockages, particularly those associated with cancer, scar tissue, and hernias.
There are no known ways to prevent small bowel disease, except, of course, avoiding nonedible foreign substances that could get stuck.
National Cancer Institute
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of Canada
DynaMed Editorial Team. Small bowel obstruction. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php . Updated June 30, 2010. Accessed November 11, 2010.
Merck Manual. Mechanical intestinal obstruction. The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy website. Available at: http://www.merck.c... . Accessed August 1, 2005.
National Cancer Institute. Gastrointestinal complications (PDQ): health professionals. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.... . Accessed August 1, 2005.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Intestinal pseudo-obstruction. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at: http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/intestinalpo/ . Accessed August 1, 2005.
Last reviewed September 2012 by Daus Mahnke, MD
Last Updated: 09/26/2012