Bowel Obstruction

What Causes Bowel Obstruction?

Bowel obstruction, or intestinal blockage, means that a growth, tumor, hernia, scar or foreign object is making it difficult for food content to pass through the digestive tract. Obstruction can also occur when part of the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) is twisted or narrowed as a result of surgery or some underlying health condition.

Generally, bowel obstruction in the small intestine is caused by scar tissue, hernias and Crohn’s disease. Cancer in of the upper GI tract is also a possibility, but in the United States is rarer. In the colon, or large intestine, however, cancer is quite common and is often the cause for colon blockage in patients. In these cases, large tumors, severe inflammation and large pouches called diverticula can make it very uncomfortable for a patient to have a bowel movement and usually results in either diarrhea or constipation, depending on the obstruction.

How do I Know If I Have Bowel Obstruction?

Patients with blockage usually experience pain in their chest or abdominal areas, although the feeling is not always constant and will come and go over time. Bouts of diarrhea or prolonged constipation are also normal for patients with obstructed bowels. Since food is not being properly digested, the patient may also feel bloated, gassy or constantly feeling like he or she wants to vomit.

If any of these symptoms persist for longer than one week, you should probably see a doctor. It’s hard to generalize and say that every case of bowel obstruction requires immediate attention, but there are indeed cases which can become fatal if left alone. For example, if a growth or object is blockage the passageway of blood into your intestines, or if the obstruction has causing perforation or tearing of the intestinal wall, you may need immediate surgery to keep your body from going into shock.

How is Bowel Obstruction Diagnosed and Treated?

Most bowel obstruction can be detected during a CT scan or x-ray of the upper and lower GI tract. These tests are usually ordered if a patient complains of any of the above symptoms, including pain or tenderness near the stomach. Depending on what is causing the blockage, a doctor might move forward with several different forms of treatment. If the blockage is only minor, it may go away on its own and simply need monitoring to ensure that it does not worsen. However, in many cases surgery may be necessary to open up the intestinal tract. Procedures that achieve this include stent and resection with colostomy. One of the gastroenterologists (GI doctors) listed in our medical directory will be happy to answer any questions you may have about intestinal blockage.


Reviewed 12/29/2011 by David M. Nolan, M.D.
Diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, 2011
Currently a Fellow of Gastroenterology, at UCI 2011-2014