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Intestinal Obstruction

Failure of partly digested material to move through the intestine due to a blockage or paralysis of the intestinal muscles

  • Age, gender, genetics, and lifestyle as risk factors depend on the cause

In intestinal obstruction, a section of the intestine is partially or totally blocked (mechanical obstruction) or the intestinal walls stop contracting (functional obstruction). In both cases, the intestinal contents cannot move along the digestive tract normally. Left untreated, the condition can be life-threatening.

What are the causes?

Many disorders can cause mechanical obstruction. For example, the intestine may be blocked by a tumour inside it or by external pressure from a growth in another organ. Obstruction may also be due to narrowing of the intestine as a result of inflammation, as in Crohn’s disease, or a strangulated hernia (see Hernias). After abdominal surgery, scar tissue can form between loops of intestine and cause an obstruction months or even years later.

Functional obstruction, in which the muscles of the intestine fail to contract properly, may be a complication of certain disorders, such as peritonitis, or it may follow major surgery.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of intestinal obstruction may include:

  • Vomiting fluid that may be greenish-yellow, or brown with a faecal odour.

  • Severe constipation.

  • Abdominal bloating.

  • Pain, usually occurring in waves that may later become continuous.

  • Total absence of flatulence.

Repeated vomiting may cause dehydration. The intestinal wall may tear due to increased pressure and leak its contents into the abdomen, causing peritonitis.

What might be done?

If an intestinal obstruction is suspected, you will be admitted to hospital immediately. You will have abdominal X-rays to confirm the diagnosis and help determine the nature and position of the obstruction. A tube may be inserted into your stomach to remove digestive juices and prevent vomiting. You will probably be given intravenous fluids to prevent further dehydration. Surgery is often needed to relieve an obstruction. If the cause is Crohn’s disease or peritonitis, treating the inflammation may relieve the obstruction. If a blockage occurs after surgery, the intestinal wall usually starts to contract normally after a few days.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

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