Understanding Intestinal Obstruction

Male body showing digestive system.

The small and large intestines are long tubes in the belly that play a big part in digesting food. An intestinal obstruction is when the small or large intestine is blocked at one or more spots. This prevents air, food, and fluid from passing normally through the digestive system.

What causes intestinal obstruction?

Intestinal obstruction can be caused by:

  • Scar tissue inside the belly. Scar tissue can form after surgery. It can press on the intestine.

  • A hole or split in the belly wall (hernia). If you have a hernia, part of your intestine may slip through the belly wall and get pinched. Then food and fluid can’t flow through as usual.

  • Tumors. These can grow inside or outside the intestines. Tumors can block the intestines from the inside. Or they can press on them from the outside.

  • Twisting of the intestine (volvulus). The intestine can sometimes twist around on itself. This can cause a blockage.

Symptoms of intestinal obstruction

Symptoms of intestinal obstruction can vary. It depends on where the blockage is and if the intestine is partly or fully blocked. Symptoms may include:

  • Belly pain or cramping. This may be constant or come and go.

  • A feeling of fullness or bloating

  • Upset stomach (nausea) or vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Constipation

  • Loss of fluid (dehydration)

  • Inability to pass gas or stool

  • Fever or sweating

  • Discomfort and bloating after meals

Treatment for intestinal obstruction

Treatment for intestinal obstruction will vary. It depends on where the blockage is and if the intestine is partly or fully blocked. In most cases of small intestinal obstruction, the blockage will resolve itself after a few days. Treatments may include:

  • Removing the contents of the digestive tract above the blockage. This is done using a tube inserted through your nose.

  • Giving fluids through an IV (intravenous) line. This replaces fluids lost with vomiting or diarrhea.

  • Surgery. For a serious intestinal obstruction, you often will need surgery to remove the blockage and fix any damage.

Possible complications of intestinal obstruction

Intestinal obstructions can have serious complications. These include:

  • Blood flow to the intestine may be blocked. This can cause intestinal tissue to die.

  • Leakage of intestine contents into the belly 

  • Irritation or infection in the belly cavity

  • Death

When to call your healthcare provider

Call your healthcare provider right away if you have any of these:

  • A new lump or bulge in the skin on your belly or groin

  • Vomiting that won’t stop

  • Inability to pass gas or stool

  • Swollen belly or increasing belly pain

  • Weakness, dizziness, or fainting

  • Abnormal drowsiness or confusion

  • Reduced urine output or extreme thirst

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed

  • Pain that gets worse

  • Symptoms that don’t get better with treatment, or symptoms that get worse

  • New symptoms