Intestinal obstruction is a partial or complete blockage of the bowel. The contents of the intestine cannot pass through it.
Obstruction of the bowel may be due to:
Paralytic ileus, also called pseudo-obstruction, is one of the major causes of intestinal obstruction in infants and children. Causes of paralytic ileus may include:
Mechanical causes of intestinal obstruction may include:
Symptoms may include:
During a physical exam, the health care provider may find bloating, tenderness, or hernias in the abdomen.
Tests that show obstruction include:
Treatment involves placing a tube through the nose into the stomach or intestine. This is to help relieve abdominal swelling (distention) and vomiting. Volvulus of the large bowel may be treated by passing a tube into the rectum.
Surgery may be needed to relieve the obstruction if the tube does not relieve the symptoms. It may also be needed if there are signs of tissue death.
The outcome depends on the cause of the blockage. Most of the time, the cause is successfully treated.
Complications may include or may lead to:
If the obstruction blocks the blood supply to the intestine, it may cause infection and tissue death (gangrene). Risks for tissue death are related to the cause of the blockage and how long it has been present. Hernias, volvulus, and intussusception carry a higher gangrene risk.
In a newborn, paralytic ileus that destroys the bowel wall (necrotizing enterocolitis) is a life-threatening condition. It may lead to blood and lung infections.
Call your provider if you:
Prevention depends on the cause. Treating conditions, such as tumors and hernias that can lead to a blockage, may reduce your risk.
Some causes of obstruction cannot be prevented.
Reviewed By: Michael M. Phillips, MD, Clinical Professor of Medicine, The George Washington University School of Medicine, Washington, DC. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.