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Bowel Obstruction Symptoms Can Come on Suddenly

If you experience progressively worsening cramping, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and constipation, it is important to see a doctor because those symptoms suggest bowel obstruction.

“Symptoms usually start without warning and will gradually worsen. Pain, abdominal bloating and nausea are the hallmarks of bowel obstruction,” said Nathaniel Uecker, MD, FACS, a general surgeon with Samaritan Surgical Specialists-Newport.

A bowel obstruction is just as it sounds. Bowel contents cannot progress through the intestines.

“Most obstructions are caused by scar tissue within the abdomen. This scarring is typically the result of previous surgeries or infections. Other causes of obstruction include inflammatory bowel disease, hernia, foreign bodies and cancer,” said Dr. Uecker.

If you have symptoms of obstruction, you should see a doctor as soon as possible.

“Intestinal obstructions diagnosed and treated early tend to resolve more frequently and without surgery, which we all prefer,” said Dr. Uecker. “If you wait, you risk prolonged hospitalization, surgery and complications of the obstruction including perforation.”

To diagnose an obstruction, doctors will assess your medical and surgical history, ask about your current symptoms and perform a physical examination. Labs, including blood and urine tests, will be ordered. If deemed appropriate, imagining will be obtained, usually a CT scan of the abdomen.

“Some obstructions show signs which indicate likely resolution with non-operative measures,” said Dr. Uecker.

These are first treated by placing a tube into the stomach through the nose to decompress the stomach. This has an immediate effect of helping reduce nausea and vomiting, which the patient appreciates.

“It also helps the bowel fix itself as there is less pressure from upstream,” Dr. Uecker said.

Over the next several days, the patient is monitored closely and kept hydrated. Additional imaging is often needed. This may involve X-ray studies or CT scans.

“Once we are confident of a resolution, a diet is ordered, and, if tolerated, the patient can go home,” Dr. Uecker said.

For obstructions that present with worrisome signs or fail to improve with non-operative management, surgery is required to correct the problem, according to Dr. Uecker.

After surgery, patients stay in the hospital for three to five days. After going home, people are off work for another week. It will take several additional weeks to return to full normal activities.

Bowel obstruction is best treated with early diagnosis and appropriate intervention.

“If you experience abdominal pain with bloating, constipation, nausea and vomiting, seek medical attention right away,” Dr. Uecker said.  

Learn more about the digestive system, from the National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases.