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How to Know If You Have a Bowel Obstruction

I was a nurse in the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force). I loved nursing but had to stop after being diagnosed with my own health issues.

Recovering after surgery for a bowel obstruction usually takes up to 2-4 weeks. Depending on the nature of the surgery, recovery can be very painful.

Recovering after surgery for a bowel obstruction usually takes up to 2-4 weeks. Depending on the nature of the surgery, recovery can be very painful.

What Is a Bowel Obstruction?

A bowel obstruction, or blockage, occurs when something prevents stool from passing through the intestine in the normal way.

To help explain what's going on in your body, we can use a garden hose as an analogy. If you stand on a garden hose, the water is unable to pass through it. The tap keeps pumping, but the water cannot pass beyond your foot, which is blocking the hose. As the pressure from the tap builds, the portion of the hose before the blockage swells with backed-up water. If you don't step away, the pent-up pressure will eventually cause the hose to break open and start leaking. This is approximately what happens with a bowel obstruction in your body.

What Are the Causes?

A bowel obstruction can be caused in a couple of different ways:

  1. Physical obstruction - In the garden hose analogy, this is your foot on the hose. This type of obstruction is usually called a dynamic or mechanical obstruction. This can be caused by scar tissue, a tumor, or by twisting of the intestines.
  2. Adynamic obstruction - This occurs when the intestinal, or peristaltic, muscles aren't working properly. Peristalsis is the process that helps move material through the digestive tract. This type of obstruction is also called paralytic ileus, or simply an ileus. This can be caused by a severe electrolyte imbalance, an infection in the bowel, or the manipulation of the intestine during surgery.

When to See a Doctor

If you experience any worrying symptoms, do not ignore them! See a doctor immediately. If it is indeed an obstruction, it can very quickly turn into an emergency situation.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Swollen stomach
  • Cramping and abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Distention of the abdomen
  • Inability to pass gas
  • Dryness of the mouth with a decrease in urine output
  • Muscle cramps
  • Stoma patients: minimal or no stoma output

In the case of a mechanical (dynamic) blockage, the intestinal muscles still work normally—and in fact those muscles work even harder to try to push the material past the blockage. These strong muscle contractions, or peristaltic waves, cause increasing cramps and pain as the pressure builds up. As a result, the intestine before the blockage can and will collapse on top of itself. When this happens, the peristaltic waves reverse direction as the bowel tries to empty its contents and relieve some of the pressure. This material then moves up through your system and comes out via vomiting.

Blockages in the large intestine usually occur gradually. By contrast, a blockage in the small intestine can occur quickly and without a lot of warning. However, in both cases, it is important to note that the body's natural balance of minerals, such as sodium and potassium, can quickly become upset, causing rapid dehydration.

The symptoms of an ileus are the same as the mechanical bowel obstruction; however, the abdomen and intestines will sound very quiet because the muscles aren't contracting normally.

There are many causes of bowel obstruction. If you experience any worrying symptoms, do not ignore them! If it is indeed an obstruction, it can very quickly turn into an emergency situation. If your pain becomes severe, you are suffering from vomiting, dehydration, and muscle cramps, and if the symptoms have lasted for more than eight hours, you should seek medical help immediately.

Partial vs. Complete Obstruction

A bowel obstruction can be one of two types:

  1. Partial - A partial obstruction is when a small amount of fluid, or some other intestinal contents, can work its way around the the blockage. Symptoms include abdominal pain, cramping, and watery output that also has an unpleasant odor. There will also be abdominal distention. Nausea and vomiting will likely be present. Stoma patients may see swelling of the stoma.
  2. Complete - A complete obstruction is when nothing can get past the blockage. Symptoms include cramping, abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. Stoma patients will see swelling of the stoma.

What If I Have an Ileostomy or a Colostomy?

It is interesting to note that a bowel obstruction can occur in either the large or the small intestine, which means that people with ileostomies and/or colostomies can also experience a bowel obstruction.