- What causes a bowel obstruction
- When you may need to seek medical care
- Symptoms to watch for
- How your doctor may treat a bowel obstruction
- What steps you can take to reduce your risk
A bowel blockage or intestinal obstruction occurs when food or liquid can’t pass through your small intestine or large intestine (colon). Many factors can lead to a blocked bowel. If you are in pain, have belly pain, or have not been able to pass solid waste (can’t poop), you should seek medical advice.
Fortunately, a bowel blockage can be prevented with a natural diet and regular cleansing in many cases. This article will look at the topic in more detail. If you have questions or are in pain, please seek medical advice immediately.
The 2 types of bowel blockages
There are two types of bowel obstructions: mechanical and non-mechanical obstructions.
A mechanical bowel obstruction involves a partial or complete physical blockage in either the small or large intestine.
Non-mechanical bowel obstructions occur when peristalsis, the wave-like movement of the intestines that moves digested food and waste through the intestines, does not happen. This is also called ‘ileus.’ If it continues as a long-term condition, it is called a pseudo-obstruction.
Symptoms of a bowel obstruction
A bowel blockage can cause mild discomfort to severe pain. It may feel like intense belly pain. Symptoms of intestinal obstruction often depend on how long you’ve had the blocked intestine and where it is located.
Sometimes, it begins as localized pain. These pains are often confused with back or side pain. It may vary in intensity, but if you have a blockage, symptoms will persist.
Common symptoms of intestinal obstruction include:
- Belly pain or stomach cramping
- Abdominal swelling
- Severe bloating
- A poor appetite
- An inability to pass gas
- Diarrhea (in cases of partial obstruction)
The longer an obstruction goes on, the more dangerous it becomes. The danger of a complete blockage can escalate fast. The tissue of the blocked intestine can die if the bowel is not cleared fast enough. An untreated bowel obstruction can cause an intestinal rupture, leading to peritonitis, a serious and potentially life-threatening infection accompanied by fever and increasing abdominal pain.
What causes a bowel obstruction?
A bowel obstruction can occur in the small intestine or large intestine. However, it is more likely to happen in the small intestine. Here are typical causes for both mechanical and non-mechanical obstructions in both the small and large intestine.
Causes of mechanical obstruction in the small intestine:
- Fibrous adhesions. Thesedevelop in the lining of the small intestine, usually resulting from inflammation or abdominal or pelvic surgery. (Can also affect the large intestine.)
- This situation often occurs when one segment of the intestine pushes into another segment. (Can also affect the large intestine.)
- Volvulus. A rare case where the intestines become twisted. (Can also affect the large intestine.)
- Physical conditions. Hernias, intestinal tumors, or gallstones can lead to a blocked bowel.
- Crohn’s Disease. An inflammatory bowel disease that affects both intestines and causes swelling in the tissue of the intestines.
- Intestinal malformations. This usually only affects newborns, though it can occur in children and teens.
- A swallowed object. An undigestible object swallowed can quickly become a cause for an obstruction.
Causes of mechanical obstruction in the colon:
- Fecal impaction. This situation occurs when a hard mass of stool gets stuck in the colon.
- Colon cancer. Several types of cancers cause tumors, scar tissue, and damage to the intestine that can lead to obstructions and fecal impaction.
- Colon stricture. A narrowing of a section in the colon due to inflammation or scarring.
- This condition features “diverticula,” small pouches that form and bulge out of the colon’s lining. These bulges develop when weak spots develop along your colon and give way under pressure. If they tear, the area becomes inflamed, and infection can result.
Causes of non-mechanical obstruction:
- Appendicitis, gastroenteritis, and other infections that affect the digestive system can cause a bowel obstruction.
- Abdominal or pelvic surgery. While surgery can lead to a mechanical intestinal obstruction due to scar tissue, the initial swelling can also create an obstruction.
- Some medications can disrupt movements in the intestines, such as opioids, ibuprofen, and naproxen. These can weaken digestion as well as weaken the colon tissue.
- Electrolyte imbalance. A mineral imbalance affects your entire body, including the efficient functioning of your colon. Muscles can seize or cramp, leading to a build-up of waste and, eventually, a blockage.
- Nerve and muscle disorders. Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease affect muscle control, which can affect the gastrointestinal tract.
- Nerve injury can be a side effect of diabetes, and nerve injury can also lead to poor intestinal function.
- Hypothyroidism. While severe blockages due to hypothyroidism are rare, constipation is common because of reduced gut motility, which can lead to intestinal obstruction.
- Hirschsprung’s disease. This rare condition features a lack of nerves in the colon, causing dysfunction in the intestines and entire gastrointestinal tract with bowel obstruction a characteristic symptom.
Treatments for intestinal obstruction
If you experience any of the symptoms mentioned above, you should seek immediate medical attention from your doctor or healthcare professional. If you are in acute pain, call immediately. Timely medical attention is crucial to successful treatment and a full recovery.
To diagnose a bowel obstruction, your doctor may begin with a physical examination of your abdomen.
Your doctor may push on your belly during an examination and listen to abdominal sounds through a stethoscope. The goal is to find any swelling, tenderness, or hard lumps.
If necessary, your doctor may also order tests including:
- Abdominal X-ray
- CT scan
Actual treatments will vary depending on the severity of your condition. Many involve hospitalization, tests, and therapies needed to treat and remove the bowel obstruction. In some cases, colon and rectal surgery may be required.
Ways to reduce the risk of bowel blockages
Sometimes you do not control the cause of a bowel blockage. However, by maintaining a healthy gastrointestinal tract, you can limit the risk that you will develop a bowel obstruction. The following lifestyle behaviors can help.
Follow a fixed eating schedule
When you eat at a regular time, you also give yourself a chance to establish a consistent bowel movement schedule.
Chew slowly and longer
Ideally, the food should be almost liquid or at least a mush when you swallow it. This will make it easier to digest and move through your bowels.
Drink plenty of water
Drinking water and eating foods with a high water content keep your stool soft. If you have a condition that requires limiting fluid intake, consult your doctor first.
Do not strain during a bowel movement
You can injure or weaken muscles in your pelvic floor by straining.
Eat smaller meals and more frequently
Instead of eating three heavy meals a day, you can eat 5 or 6 smaller meals every 3 hours. This practice keeps the muscles of your gut moving, helping to move food and waste through the system.
Movement helps with digestion, and it stimulates blood flow. Walking is excellent for digestion. Most experts suggest you aim for 30 minutes of brisk activity every day – like a brisk walk!
Avoid these foods if...
If you have suffered from a bowel obstruction, you may have a section of your intestines that has narrowed or is scarred. You may need to avoid high-fiber foods, raw vegetables, fruit skins, husks, and seeds in cases like these. These foods pass through your system undigested and may cause a blockage. Talk to your doctor or seek proper medical advice about taking fiber supplements and eating whole grain foods.
Make digestive health part of your daily routine
We often take our digestive tracts for granted. One way to prevent this is by making behaviors that support your bowels a part of your health and wellness program. This doesn’t mean you should fixate on the quality of your stool or how you pass gas; instead, take steps to make digestion as easy and smooth as possible.
For example, if you frequently have indigestion after you eat, you may find digestive enzymes or a probiotic supplement can help relieve the problem. If constipation is a problem, taking a regular colon cleanse supplement can help keep you regular – preventing blockages due to hardened stool.
You have to be careful taking supplements for a daily cleanse. Some include harsh ingredients. For a daily cleanse, you want one that is gentle and soothes the system. This will help keep you regular and improve digestion and nutrient absorption, and hopefully, keep you from ever experiencing a bowel obstruction.