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What are the Different Types of Intestinal Obstruction?

By Melissa King
Updated: Mar 03, 2024

Intestinal obstruction is a blockage of the digestive tract, often resulting in symptoms such as intermittent or severe abdominal cramps, vomiting, or constipation. There may be many different types of obstructions in the intestines, including blockage from a foreign object, intussusception, strangulation, and paralytic ileus. An obstruction can also be a symptom of other diseases.

When objects are swallowed that are not meant for human consumption and digestion, an intestinal obstruction may result. Abdominal tenderness and pain, as well as vomiting, are likely to occur. Constipation may be the most common symptom. If the object cannot be passed through the digestive tract naturally, it may need to be surgically removed.

Intussusception is a type of intestinal obstruction that can be broken down into three subcategories. The sub-acute type may last over a month. In acute intussusception, death can result within a week if no action is taken, and in ultra-acute, death typically results within 24 hours. This condition occurs when parts of the intestines fold into themselves. Symptoms can include violent pain that subsides and recurs, nausea, vomiting, and bloody mucus. The condition is treated with an enema; if it fails, surgery is required.

Intestinal strangulation may occur when the blood supply to the digestive tract is cut off. It can be another symptom of intussusception, or it is sometimes caused by a strangulated hernia, or a twist in the intestine called volvulus. This issue is likely to need surgical correction.

The type of intestinal obstruction called paralytic ileus results when the intestine becomes either fully or partially paralyzed. This can be a common cause of intestinal problems among children. When this condition occurs, food cannot be properly passed through, resulting in obstruction. This problem most commonly occurs after surgery, or can be caused by spinal injury, drugs, or inflammation. Symptoms may include abdominal distention, constipation, vomiting and nausea. IV fluids, electrolytes, and nasogastric suction are often administered to correct the issue.

When intestinal obstruction is suspected, a doctor may wish to perform several tests. Testing will often begin by listening to the intestines with a stethoscope. High-pitched sounds often accompany many types of obstruction, although silence may indicate the onset of paralytic ileus. Other tests may include a barium enema, CT scan, or X-ray.

In nearly all types of intestinal obstruction, if the blockage is not removed, additional complications may arise. Some of these can include jaundice, intestinal tearing, or tissue death. Tissue death can result in infection or gangrene.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By KoiwiGal — On Jul 15, 2011

I have heard that if you get certain kinds of intestinal obstruction, like for example when your intestines get twisted in the wrong way, it can cause terrible symptoms.

Like, for example, projectile vomiting. Because the contents of your bowel moves back up into the stomach and the stomach doesn't want it there.

They almost always have to have bowel obstruction surgery too.

I think it would be just about the worst thing to get, but I'm pretty sure it just happens sometimes and there's no real way to prevent it.

By umbra21 — On Jul 15, 2011

Unfortunately, often the blockage in kids is caused by them swallowing something they shouldn't. I've known lots of parents who have had kids swallow a small plastic toy or a bunch of coins or even jewelry. Unfortunately, at a certain age, they will put almost anything in their mouths and then I think they swallow it by accident.

Usually it has a happy ending, with no more needed than a laxative but sometimes the poor child needs surgery.

So, I think if my child showed any kind of intestinal obstruction symptoms I would dash them to the hospital just in case.

Even if you think there's no way they could have possibly swallowed something, you could absolutely be wrong. Better to be safe than sorry.

By Mor — On Jul 14, 2011

I am always amazed by those TV programs where they show the things that people sometimes swallow. Like the woman who had kilos of hair in her stomach. Or other people who swallow dolls or bits of metal.

In fact there was once a side show act where a man with an incredibly strong stomach managed to eat a whole plane (not in a sitting, over a few months). I kid you not. He just broke down this little plane into tiny pieces and ate them.

I don't think he ever had an intestinal or bowel obstruction either.

This world is a very strange and wonderful place.

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