Symptoms and causes

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of intestinal obstruction include:

  • Crampy abdominal pain that comes and goes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Constipation
  • Vomiting
  • Inability to have a bowel movement or pass gas
  • Swelling of the abdomen

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.

Causes

The most common causes of intestinal obstruction in adults are:

  • Intestinal adhesions — bands of fibrous tissue in the abdominal cavity that can form after abdominal or pelvic surgery
  • Colon cancer

In children, the most common cause of intestinal obstruction is telescoping of the intestine (intussusception).

Other possible causes of intestinal obstruction include:

  • Hernias — portions of intestine that protrude into another part of your body
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn's disease
  • Diverticulitis — a condition in which small, bulging pouches (diverticula) in the digestive tract become inflamed or infected
  • Twisting of the colon (volvulus)
  • Impacted feces

Pseudo-obstruction

Intestinal pseudo-obstruction (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 or pelvic surgery
  • Infection
  • Certain medications that affect muscles and nerves, including tricyclic antidepressants, such as amitriptyline  and imipramine (Tofranil), and opioid pain medications, such as those containing hydrocodone (Vicodin) and oxycodone (Oxycontin)
  • Muscle and nerve disorders, such as Parkinson's disease

Risk factors

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

  • Abdominal or pelvic surgery, which often causes adhesions — a common intestinal obstruction
  • Crohn's disease, which 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

Complications

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.
Dec. 31, 2015
References
  1. Feldman M, et al. Intestinal obstruction. In: Sleisenger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease: Pathophysiology, Diagnosis, Management. 10th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2016. http://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Sept. 10, 2015.
  2. Glancy DG. Intestinal obstruction. Surgery. 2014;34:204.
  3. Kitagawa S, et al. Intussusception in children. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Sept. 10, 2015.
  4. Intestinal pseudo-obstruction. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-topics/digestive-diseases/intestinal-pseudo-obstruction/Pages/facts.aspx. Accessed Sept. 17, 2015.
  5. Ileus. Merck Manual Professional Version. http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/gastrointestinal-disorders/acute-abdomen-and-surgical-gastroenterology/ileus. Accessed Sept. 18, 2015.