Recognizing and Managing Intestinal Obstruction

Intestinal obstruction is a medical emergency wherein there is a partial or complete blockage of the intestine that prevents fluid or digested food passage.

Recognizing and Managing Intestinal Obstruction

Recognizing and Managing Intestinal Obstruction

Intestinal obstruction occurs when there is a partial or complete blockage of either the small or large intestine. It is considered a medical emergency because it prevents the passage of fluid, digested food or even gas. There is a wide range of causes of intestinal obstruction. Unfortunately, most of these cases are not preventable. Several tests can be done to check for intestinal obstruction, which include abdominal CT scan or x-ray, barium enema, or upper gastrointestinal and small bowel series. Early diagnosis and treatment is essential as it can be life-threatening. The prognosis will depend on the underlying cause of the blockage, fortunately most cases can be easily treated.

Causes of Intestinal Obstruction

Intestinal obstruction can either be caused by a ileus, a condition wherein the bowels are not working correctly but there is no problem with the anatomy, or a mechanical cause, wherein there is a physical obstruction. Ileus is one the chief causes of intestinal obstruction in infants and children. Some of the specific causes may include:

  • Ileus (also called paralytic ileus)
    • Bacterial or viral gastroenteritis
    • Electrolyte, chemical or mineral imbalances in the body
    • Diminished blood supply to the intestines
    • Abdominal infections, such as appendicitis
    • Complications of abdominal surgery
    • Lung or kidney disease
    • Severe constipation
    • Use of certain medications, particularly narcotics
    • Mechanical causes:
      • Ingestion of foreign bodies
      • Scar tissue or adhesions that occur after surgery
      • Volvulus (twisting or knotting of the intestines)
      • Hernia
      • Faecal impaction
      • Intussuception (a section of the intestine collapses into another section)
      • Tumours blocking the intestine
      • Gallstones (rare)

Signs and Symptoms of Intestine Obstruction

Most of the symptoms of intestine obstruction involve the gastrointestinal tract. The following are the common signs and symptoms of intestine obstruction:

  • Abdominal pain, cramps and swelling
  • Bloating
  • Little appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Constipation or diarrhoea
  • Inability to pass gas
  • Bad breath
  • High-grade fever

Possible Complications from Intestinal Obstruction

If intestinal obstruction is not treated promptly, complications are likely to develop. Some of these possible complications include:

  • Dehydration
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Intestinal perforation
  • Infection
  • Gangrene
  • Jaundice

Treatment for Intestinal Obstruction

Intestinal obstruction is a medical emergency and immediate medical treatment is required. This condition cannot be treated at home. Treatment for intestinal obstruction will be tailored accordingly to the cause, which may include:

  • Placement of a tube through the nose and into the stomach or intestine that may help ease abdominal swelling and vomiting; in cases wherein there is volvulus of the large intestine, the tube may run through the rectum instead
  • In some cases, surgery¬† may be required in case tube placement does not alleviate symptoms or gangrene occurs

Disclaimer: This article does not provide medical advice and should not be substituted for formal first aid training. The information given should not be used for self-diagnosis. Seek medical attention when necessary. It is important to recognise medical emergencies at all times to avoid complications from developing.


Intestinal Obstruction. (2012, July 25).  National Institutes of Health. Retrieved on October 18, 2013, from

Moore, Kristeen. (2012, July 27). Intestinal Obstruction. Healthline. Retrieved on October 18, 2013, from

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