If you’ve had abdominal surgery recently, it’s important to be on the lookout for symptoms of a complication known as a bowel obstruction.
While not extremely common, a bowel obstruction — also called intestinal obstruction — can occur when scar tissue forms inside the abdomen after a surgical procedure, causing a kink in the intestines. In some cases, food movement is totally blocked; with a partial bowel obstruction, a limited amount of food can move through.
“A bowel obstruction is not really anything on the inside of the bowel,” explains Richard A. Desi, MD, a gastroenterologist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “It can twist the bowel into a funny position, to close or clamp it off.”
Other bowel obstruction causes can include cancer or a hernia, but those cases are rare, Dr. Desi says. On occasion, a foreign body can cause a bowel obstruction. Women tend to develop bowel obstructions more often than men because they are more likely to have had Caesarian sections, gallbladder removals, and other types of abdominal surgery.
Identifying Bowel Obstruction Symptoms
Bowel obstruction symptoms usually come on suddenly, and they are severe — acute pain in the abdomen, along with nausea or vomiting. Most people affected by a bowel obstruction are unable to pass gas or have a bowel movement, and may have a swollen abdomen.
Infrequent bowel movements or hard stools usually do not indicate obstruction. “A lot of people have nonspecific symptoms like abdominal pain, and they’re concerned about obstructions because they’re constipated,” Desi says. “Obstruction and constipation are two different things. Bowel obstruction is nothing chronic — there’s usually a very dramatic progression of symptoms.”
Why It’s Critical to Treat Bowel Obstruction
If you have bowel obstruction symptoms, it’s important to see a doctor right away. Doctors may use a CT scan, which creates a cross-sectional picture of your body, to look for an obstruction. Regular abdominal X-rays can also be used. If you have a complete obstruction, immediate surgery is required.
Partial bowel obstruction may be treated in a hospital setting with a few days of “bowel rest,” a technique in which any remaining food is drained from a patient’s stomach and further food is eliminated. Intravenous fluids help you stay hydrated. “Sometimes, within a few days things can open up and start moving along,” Desi says. “Patients can respond and do very well.” If bowel rest does not work or bowel tissue begins to die due to the blockage, surgery may then be attempted.
In some cases, people with bowel obstruction symptoms are found to have no blockage in their intestines. This is known as intestinal pseudo-obstruction, a disorder that happens when nerves or muscles lack the ability to move food through the body. Children and older adults are more likely to develop intestinal pseudo-obstruction. Treatment may involve ingesting liquid food through a feeding tube or intravenously.
Bowel obstruction can be a very serious condition requiring immediate medical attention — be aware of the symptoms and contact your doctor to get the treatment you need.
Learn more in the Everyday Health Digestive Health Center.