What Is a Bowel Obstruction? - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Marisela Duque

Marisela teaches nursing courses at the college level. She also works as a unit educator, teaching experienced nurses about changes in nursing practice.

After completing this lesson, you will be able to describe what a bowel obstruction is, as well as the causes, symptoms and treatment of the condition. A short quiz follows the lesson.

Defining Bowel Obstruction

A bowel obstruction can be easily explained by examining a highway full of speeding cars. When an accident occurs, the road becomes blocked and very little or no cars are allowed to pass. In the same way, your intestines can get a 'road block' that allows little or no stool to pass through to your rectum (the final part of your digestive system). This condition is known as a bowel obstruction.

Bowel Obstruction Causes

There are a number of things that can cause a bowel obstruction. If you have had previous bowel surgeries, scar tissue (adhesions) can form and restrict the passage of stool. An obstruction can also be the result of paralytic ileus, a condition in which the bowels become 'paralyzed' and stop working like they are supposed to. Ileus is one of the main causes of bowel obstruction in children and can be caused by various things, including bacteria, viruses, low potassium levels, decreased blood supply to the bowels and some medications. Other conditions that can lead to a bowel obstruction include diverticulitis (inflamed or infected pouches in your intestines), tumors and hernias.

Symptoms of a Bowel Obstruction

Some common signs and symptoms of a bowel obstruction include:

  • Abdominal cramps that come and go
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal swelling (distention)
  • Abdominal fullness (gas)
  • Inability to pass stool or gas

Bowel Obstruction Treatment

A bowel obstruction can be very serious and requires immediate medical treatment. Imagine if you put a tight rubber band on your finger for too long; the area below the rubber band becomes blue and will eventually die unless you do something to relieve the pressure. The same thing can happen to your intestines if a bowel obstruction is not resolved. Luckily, with proper treatment most people make a full recovery.

The treatment depends on the cause of the obstruction, but most of the time it requires hospitalization. Once you're at the hospital, a doctor or nurse may insert a long, thin (nasogastric) tube into your nose and through your digestive system. This may sound scary, but it's actually very quick and mostly just uncomfortable. This tube will help to relieve discomfort from the accumulating gas by letting it escape through the tube, which should make you feel much better. Sometimes, a total bowel obstruction requires surgery to relieve the obstruction and remove any dead bowel tissue.

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