The dangers of a bowel obstruction

Do you like driving through heavy traffic? Cars need a clear, unobstructed pathway to keep traffic problems and accidents down to a minimum.

Even a small obstruction can cause multiple problems on a well-travelled road. Although not exactly the same, your bowels also need a clear path to keep your digestive system running smoothly.

If you have any bowel obstructions, they can start causing other problems in your body that may turn dangerous or even life-threatening.

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According to the NIH, between 60 and 70 million people in the U.S. are living with some type of digestive problem. Of these, hernia, gallstones, inflammatory bowel and irritable bowel syndrome account for an astounding 40 million cases. In addition, many people have chronic conditions, meaning that they’re likely living with digestive discomfort on a daily basis.  

How do you know if you have a bowel obstruction?

A bowel obstruction is a broad term that can mean anything from an inflammation in the digestive system to a more direct obstruction like a hernia or cancer. You can get an obstruction, or blockage, in either the small or the large intestine.

Both will cause symptoms, but blockage in the large intestine may take longer to manifest because of its ability to make up for abnormal bowel habits.  

Common symptoms of a bowel obstruction include:

  • Stomach pain or cramping
  • Bloated or distended belly
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Inability to pass gas
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Loss of appetite

Depending on the severity, you may be tempted to dismiss unusual symptoms or wait until the problem worsens. However, a change in bowel habits does indicate a problem, and you’ll want to check into it right away.

Who is at risk here?

Although bowel obstructions can happen to anyone, certain groups have an increased risk. Specifically, you may develop a bowel obstruction if

  • You have had abdominal or pelvic surgery recently.
  • After abdominal surgery, you can develop adhesions, which are bands of fibrous tissue in the abdominal cavity.
  • You have a history of cancer, especially colon cancer or other tumors in the abdomen.
  • Once you have developed a tumor in your abdomen, you should suspect this cause first in the event of a bowel change. See your doctor immediately.
  • Crohn’s disease
  • This inflammatory condition can cause the intestinal walls to swell or thicken, making passage more difficult during digestion.

What dangers or complications might happen?

Just as a traffic obstruction can cause multiple problems like other traffic accidents, backup or missed appointments, a bowel obstruction will cause damage too.

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Your digestive system is the center of your body’s functioning. It processes food and sends vital nutrients to the muscles and organs, keeping everything flowing and working together. If that system is broken, the rest of the body will function poorly.

A few complications that may happen are

1. Malnourishment – Especially during a complete obstruction, nutrients cannot get to the rest of the body. Severe cases may need to get nutrients through an IV or tube feeding.

2. Tissue death – An obstruction may cut off the blood supply in part of your intestines. If not treated, the tissue can actually die.

3. Herniation – The obstruction can sometimes perforate the intestines, leading to a hernia. In addition, tissue death can weaken the intestinal wall.

4. Infection – In the case of herniation, an infection can settle into the perforated area. Combined with other factors, this infection can prove life-threatening.

5. Scarring – If the obstruction causes damage to the intestines, scarring may occur as the body heals. In turn, the scarring will narrow the passage for digestion, increasing the risk of another bowel obstruction in the future.

How are bowel obstructions treated?

Treating the bowel obstruction will depend largely on the type of obstruction you have. In many cases, you’ll need surgery to remove the obstruction or repair the damage. Your doctor may also need to remove tissue or part of the intestines in the case of tissue death or severe damage.

If you have only a partial obstruction, your doctor may recommend a low-fiber diet and may keep a close eye on your condition. If your body cannot break it down after a time, you may need surgery.

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Finally, you may only need treatment through medication and diet if you’re dealing with an inflammatory bowel such as Crohn’s disease.

Bowel obstructions can be dangerous. If not dealt with properly, they can lead to malnutrition, a hernia, infection and even tissue death. Thankfully, the signs of a bowel obstruction often cause noticeable changes in bowel habits, including stomach pain and swelling. Because these changes could mean a deeper problem, it’s important that you seek a doctor’s advice right away.

This article first appeared on AskDrManny.com.

Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. For more information on Dr. Manny's work, visit AskDrManny.com.