Generally speaking, the bowels are the small and large intestines. When your stomach breaks down food, it passes it to the small intestines, which absorbs minerals and nutrients. The small intestines pass the leftovers to your large intestine, which functions to absorb additional water and nutrients.
If something happens to block the flow of food in your bowels, the digestive process is interrupted. Materials no longer move through your bowels as they should, which causes digestive problems. It’s essential to know the signs of blocked bowels so that you can get help from your doctor immediately. If left untreated, blocked intestines can cause an abdominal infection or other serious health conditions.
Symptoms of a blocked bowel
Small intestine obstructions are generally accompanied by the following symptoms:
Types of blockages in bowels
Both the large and small intestines can become partially or fully blocked, depending on the cause. Both intestines can be blocked by a functional obstruction, where there is no physical obstruction, but the food is not moving. There can also be a mechanical blockage, where there’s something physically preventing food from moving.
Causes of a blocked bowel
Several different types of obstructions can occur within your bowels, depending on the affected intestine.
The small intestine is most commonly blocked by:
- Adhesions: Scars in the intestine can cause connective tissue to form, which can create a blockage.
- A hernia: The intestine can poke through tears in the abdominal wall far enough to cause it to pinch together.
- Tumors: If a tumor grows inside the intestine, it can block the passage of food. When growing outside of the intestine, a tumor can press into it and cause a blockage.
- Functional blockages: The nerves and muscles that move food are not working because of some other condition.
The large intestine can be obstructed by:
- Colorectal cancer: A cancerous growth in the colon or rectum can obstruct the flow of waste and cause a blockage.
- Volvulus: This is a condition that usually affects people over the age of 65. Volvulus happens when an intestine twists and pinches itself shut.
- Diverticular disease: Small pouches within the large intestine are called diverticula. They can become infected, heal, and leave scars. Over time, the scars can tighten and shrink in size, decreasing the size of the colon.
Diagnosing a blocked bowel
Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and conduct a physical exam of your abdominal area. Additionally, they may take a blood sample to test your electrolyte levels and hydration. The doctor may also order an X-ray of your abdomen to see if you have any blockages. As a last resort, they might want to perform surgery to look inside your intestines for any scar tissue or other conditions.
Treatments for a blocked bowel
Treatment for an intestinal obstruction depends on the type of block your doctor finds. If the blockage is a buildup of material in one of your intestines, treatment usually begins with intravenous fluids and a tube inserted through your nose to suck out built-up gas. This gives your body a chance to unblock the intestine on its own. If fluids do not help or the blockage is functional, the doctor will consider other options:
- Surgery for adhesions or hernias
- Special treatment for tumors and colorectal cancer
- A high-fiber diet, probiotics, or medicine to reduce the symptoms of diverticulitis
- A colonoscopy to clear obstructions
- A visit to a specialist
Some methods might help prevent intestinal blockages. For example, a balanced diet that includes vegetables, fruits, and lots of water can ensure you get enough fiber and fluids to stay hydrated and reduce gas buildup. Try not to lift heavy objects, as this tends to put pressure on your abdominal walls and can cause tearing.
See your doctor regularly for checkups, and make sure you talk to them about any problems or concerns. Catching a bowel obstruction early can reduce the chance of one growing more serious.
Digestive Disorders Resources
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Harvard Health Publishing: "Bowel Obstruction."
Harvard Health Publishing: "Abdominal Adhesions."
Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Understanding an Intestinal Obstruction."
Medical University of South Carolina: "Small Bowel Obstruction."
MedlinePlus: "Intestinal pseudo-obstruction."
National Cancer Institute: "Gastric Cancer Treatment (PDQ)–Patient Version."
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Treatment for Diverticular Disease."