Signs and Symptoms of Bowel Obstruction

<p>Liubomyr Vorona / Getty Images</p>

Liubomyr Vorona / Getty Images

Medically reviewed by Jay N. Yepuri, MD

Bowel obstruction is a partial or complete blockage in the small intestine or large intestine (colon). The part of the intestine above the obstruction functions normally, while the area with the blockage enlarges as it fills with a buildup of food, fluids, gas, and stool. This leads to symptoms such as abdominal pain, constipation, vomiting, bloating, or the inability to pass gas.

The onset of symptoms can vary, depending on the type of obstruction. You may notice mild abdominal discomfort that comes and goes, gradually intensifying over time, or you may experience severe symptoms that develop suddenly.

Untreated bowel obstruction can lead to serious illness, including intestinal perforation, bowel necrosis (tissue death), and life-threatening infection. Understanding the symptoms can help you recognize when to seek medical attention and improve your chances of full recovery.

Common Symptoms

Bowel obstruction symptoms may vary in intensity and duration depending on the type and location of the obstruction. All bowel obstructions share common symptoms, including:

  • Abdominal pain: Pain caused by bowel obstruction often feels like sharp, stabbing pains or intense cramping.

  • Bloating: An obstruction restricts the normal flow of intestinal contents, causing gas, fluids, food, and stool to accumulate in the blocked section of the intestine. This can lead to bloating and a feeling of fullness in your abdomen.

  • Changes in bowel habits: Bowel movement symptoms may include constipation, diarrhea, or both. 

Small Intestine Obstruction Symptoms

The small intestine helps break down and absorb nutrients from food, moving it along the digestive tract to your large intestine. When your small intestine is obstructed, foods and gastric juices cannot adequately move through the digestive tract. This leads to symptoms like:

  • Crampy abdominal pain that may radiate across the upper to mid-abdominal region

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Restlessness

  • Dehydration

  • Rapid heart rate

  • Loud gurgling or rumbling sounds in your abdomen

  • Diarrhea

Large Intestine Obstruction Symptoms

The colon's primary function is to absorb water and electrolytes from stool, forming it into a more solid consistency before it passes through the rectum and anus. Symptoms of a large intestine bowel obstruction may include:

  • Severe lower abdominal pain

  • Fever

  • A feeling of pressure or heaviness in the lower abdomen

  • Constipation or the complete inability to have a bowel movement

  • Inability to pass gas

  • Bloating or abdominal distention (swelling)

  • Loud, high-pitched abdominal sounds

Partial vs. Complete Bowel Obstruction Symptoms

Symptoms of partial bowel obstruction and complete bowel obstruction are similar, but they might differ in their development and severity.

Partial Bowel Obstruction Symptoms

Symptoms of a partial bowel obstruction may come and go for days or weeks and usually worsen over time until they're treated. Partial bowel obstructions may cause:

Complete Bowel Obstruction Symptoms

Complete bowel obstruction is a medical emergency that requires immediate medical care and treatment to prevent complications. With complete obstruction, nothing can pass through the obstruction. This usually results in a sudden onset of severe symptoms, such as:

  • Severe, sudden abdominal pain

  • Inability to pass gas or stool

  • Loss of appetite

Symptoms in Children

Bowel obstruction is more common in adults, but it can also affect infants and children. For infants and children up to 3 years old, bowel obstruction most frequently occurs when one portion of the intestine slides into the next portion. This is called intussusception, which restricts the flow of fluids and food through the digestive tract.

Sudden, loud crying due to severe abdominal pain is often the first sign of intussusception in children. They might cry loudly and inconsolably because they can't verbalize their symptoms. Infants or children may also draw their knees up to their chest to relieve sharp abdominal pain and cramping.

Other signs of bowel obstruction in infants and children include:

  • Distended abdomen

  • Vomiting, which might be green from bile

  • Change in bowel movements, like diarrhea or constipation

  • Symptoms of shock, including clammy and pale skin

  • Loss of appetite

  • Irritability 

Later symptoms include:

Pain comes and goes because it happens whether or not the bowel is contracting.

When to Contact a Healthcare Provider

Knowing whether an obstruction or another gastrointestinal issue is causing your symptoms can be challenging. Contact a healthcare provider if you or someone you know experiences symptoms like persistent abdominal pain, bloating, vomiting, or changes in bowel habits. They could be a sign of possible bowel instruction or other digestive conditions that require medical attention. 

Seek immediate medical attention if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Severe abdominal pain

  • Unrelenting vomiting

  • Abdominal distension

  • Inability to pass gas or stool

  • Signs of dehydration 

These symptoms may signal a complete bowel obstruction or other serious complications that require emergency medical evaluation and treatment.

Related: Here's When Constipation Is an Emergency and What To Do

A Quick Review

Bowel obstruction occurs when the normal flow of digestive contents in the small or large intestine is partially or entirely blocked. Common symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, vomiting, and changes in bowel habits. Symptoms may develop suddenly or gradually and can vary based on the location and severity of the obstruction.

See a healthcare provider if you have possible symptoms of bowel obstruction. Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent complications and promote recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between a bowel obstruction and a bowel blockage?

The terms "bowel obstruction" and "bowel blockage" are often used interchangeably to describe the same condition: a blockage in the intestines that prevents food, fluids, and stool passage through the digestive tract.

Does drinking water help improve bowel obstruction symptoms?

Drinking plenty of water is important for your digestive health and can help prevent constipation, but it won't relieve bowel obstruction symptoms. Healthcare providers typically restrict fluids and foods by mouth until the obstruction is resolved. Intravenous (IV) fluids help prevent dehydration in people with bowel obstructions. Once you receive a diagnosis, your healthcare provider will determine the most appropriate treatment and when you can resume drinking and eating normally.

How long can you have bowel obstruction symptoms without knowing?

The onset and progression of bowel obstruction symptoms can vary from person to person. Some people with partial obstruction experience intermittent symptoms for days or weeks, with symptoms progressively worsening. With a complete bowel obstruction, severe symptoms may develop suddenly and without warning.

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