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Intestinal obstruction

Intestinal obstruction is a blockage that keeps food or liquid from passing through your small intestine or large intestine (colon). Intestinal obstruction may be caused by fibrous bands of tissue in the abdomen (adhesions) which form after surgery, inflamed or infected pouches in your intestine (diverticulitis), hernias and tumors.

Without treatment, the blocked parts of the intestine can die, leading to serious problems. However, with prompt medical care, intestinal obstruction often can be successfully treated.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications

Signs and symptoms of intestinal obstruction include:

  • Crampy abdominal pain that comes and goes
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Inability to have a bowel movement or pass gas
  • Swelling of the abdomen (distention)

When to see a doctor

Because of the serious complications that can develop from intestinal obstruction, seek immediate medical care if you have severe abdominal pain or other symptoms of intestinal obstruction.

Mechanical obstruction of the small intestine

Common causes of mechanical obstruction, in which something physically blocks the small intestine, include:

  • Intestinal adhesions — bands of fibrous tissue in the abdominal cavity that can form after abdominal or pelvic surgery
  • Hernias — portions of intestine that protrude into another part of your body
  • Tumors in the small intestine
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn's disease
  • Twisting of the intestine (volvulus)
  • Telescoping of the intestine (intussusception)

Mechanical obstruction of the colon

Mechanical obstruction is much less common in the colon. Potential causes include:

  • Colon cancer
  • Diverticulitis — a condition in which small, bulging pouches (diverticula) in the digestive tract become inflamed or infected
  • Twisting of the colon (volvulus)
  • Impacted feces
  • Narrowing of the colon caused by inflammation and scarring (stricture)

Paralytic ileus

Paralytic ileus can cause signs and symptoms of intestinal obstruction, but doesn't involve a physical blockage. In paralytic ileus, muscle or nerve problems disrupt the normal coordinated muscle contractions of the intestines, slowing or stopping the movement of food and fluid through the digestive system.

Paralytic ileus can affect any part of the intestine. Causes can include:

  • Abdominal surgery
  • Pelvic surgery
  • Infection
  • Certain medications, including antidepressants and pain medications that affect muscles and nerves
  • Muscle and nerve disorders, such as Parkinson's disease

Diseases and conditions that can increase your risk of intestinal obstruction include:

  • Abdominal or pelvic surgery often causes adhesions — a common intestinal obstruction
  • Crohn's disease can cause the intestine's walls to thicken, narrowing the passageway
  • Cancer in your abdomen, especially if you've had surgery to remove an abdominal tumor or radiation therapy

Untreated, intestinal obstruction can cause serious, life-threatening complications, including:

  • Tissue death. Intestinal obstruction can cut off the blood supply to part of your intestine. Lack of blood causes the intestinal wall to die. Tissue death can result in a tear (perforation) in the intestinal wall, which can lead to infection.
  • Infection. Peritonitis is the medical term for infection in the abdominal cavity. It's a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical and often surgical attention.
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