What is a Bowel Obstruction?

What is a Bowel Obstruction?

A bowel (intestinal) obstruction happens when food or stool is unable to move through your intestines, leading to stomach pain, vomiting, or constipation. It affects your colon and/or small intestine.

In healthy individuals, digested food is able to move from the stomach to rectum, eventually releasing the stool through a bowel movement. A bowel obstruction stops that from happening either partially or completely. Adhesions, hernias, inflammation of the intestines, or cancer can cause it.

Types of Bowel Obstruction

Types of Bowel Obstruction

There are several different types of bowel obstruction, though they can all appear to have similar symptoms of crampy abdominal pain, vomiting, and/or constipation.

The main types of bowel obstruction include:

  • Small bowel obstruction, or an obstruction in the small intestine. A small bowel instruction can block the flow of digested food to the large intestine and can be caused by adhesions, hernias, or inflammatory diseases or cancer.
  • Large bowel obstruction is an obstruction in the large intestine. The large intestine, which includes the colon and rectum, removes waste from the body. A large bowel obstruction stops the flow of waste out of the body. They account for about 20% of bowel obstructions, and is caused by colon cancer and/or scarring from inflammation secondary to diverticular disease and/or inflammatory bowel disease.
  • Partial bowel obstruction, which occurs when the blockage isn’t complete and still allows some liquid, gas or food to move through the intestines. Small bowel partial obstruction may be treated with bowel rest and decompression. If the cause is adhesions from pervious surgery, these usually resolve on their own. Inflammatory and/or cancer will need to be removed.
  • Complete bowel obstruction is more serious and means no intestinal contents are not able to pass through the blockage at all. Complete blockage is considered a life-threatening emergency and typically requires immediate hospitalization and surgery.
  • Pseudo-obstruction involves symptoms of bowel obstruction but without an actual physical blockage of the intestines. This is a functional disorder of the bowel usually caused by medications like opioids and/or bowel motility disorders.

Signs & Symptoms of Bowel Obstruction


Bowel obstruction can come with uncomfortable and often severe symptoms, including severe abdominal pain, vomiting, and the inability to pass stool or gas. The specialists at NewYork-Presbyterian are trained to identify the signs of bowel obstruction and find the right treatment plan for you.

Bowel obstruction symptoms can include:

  • Severe stomach pain that can feel like intermittent cramps
  • Vomiting
  • Inability to move your bowels or pass gas
  • Constipation
  • Inability to pass gas
  • Bloating
  • Lack of appetite
  • Swelling in your abdomen

What Causes Bowel Obstructions?

What Causes Bowel Obstructions?

Bowel obstructions can have many causes, ranging from abdominal adhesions to cancer. The cause of your bowel obstruction also depends on the type of obstruction (physical blockage or pseudo-obstruction).

Mechanical (physical blockage) bowel obstruction causes

  • Abdominal adhesions, or bands of tissue that may form following abdominal or pelvic surgery
  • Colon cancer
  • Rectal cancer
  • Carcinomatosis
  • Diverticulitis, a disease in which pouches known as diverticula in the intestines become infected
  • Hernias: Occur when parts of intestines protrude into other parts of the body
  • Internal hernias
  • Inflammatory bowel Disease (IBD)
  • Intussusception, in which a part of the intestine slides into another part. It is one of the most common causes of bowel obstruction in children.

Pseudo-obstruction causes

  • Brain or nervous system disorders like cerebral palsy or Parkinson’s disease, which may prevent your nerves and muscles from working properly in the digestive system
  • Muscular disorders like muscular dystrophy or lupus, which may impair the muscles in your intestines
  • Being bedridden or being immobile for long periods of time
  • Medication like opioids that may impact your digestive system and slow down your intestines
  • Chronic diseases like kidney or heart disease
  • Infections that may damage your nerves, caused by viruses like herpes or the Epstein-Barr virus

Complications of Bowel Obstructions

Complications of Bowel Obstructions

If left untreated, bowel obstructions may result in certain complications linked to the inability to pass stool. Untreated intestinal obstructions can be life-threatening and may lead to serious issues like sepsis or death.

Complications include:

  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Dehydration
  • Jaundice
  • Infection
  • Perforation, or tear, of the intestine
  • Ischemia of bowel
  • Sepsis



There are numerous ways to prevent bowel obstructions, including adjusting your diet and lifestyle. Choosing to eat smaller meals throughout the day and finding time to exercise daily, for example, are some ways to prevent bowel obstruction.

Here are some practical tips for prevention:

  • See a hernia surgeon for bulges
  • Make sure your colonoscopy is up to date
  • If you have a family history of colorectal and/or bowel cancers—please see a provider for routine screening
  • If you feel an obstruction or are concerned, please see your provider as soon as possible
Get Care

Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Intestinal Care

It’s important to be aware of the symptoms of bowel obstruction so you can seek treatment as soon as possible to prevent more serious issues. At NewYork-Presbyterian, our specialists are highly trained in diagnosing and treating bowel obstruction and can help get you back to normal activities.

Call us to make an appointment and gain access to some of the best specialists suited to treat bowel obstruction.