An intestinal obstruction is a blockage of the small or large intestine (also called the small or large bowel). The blockage makes it hard for the contents of the bowel to pass through and out of the body. If the obstruction is only partly blocking the intestine, you may feel some relief of crampy abdominal pain and fullness as you pass liquid stool or gas. Sometimes the blockage cuts off blood flow to part of the bowel. When this happens, the bowel is said to be strangulated. The lack of blood flow can cause death of some of the tissue and can be life threatening.
The most common cause of an intestinal obstruction is scar tissue (adhesions) from previous surgeries. Other causes of a blockage may include:
  • Cancer
  • Inflammation of the bowel from conditions such as Crohn’s disease or diverticulitis
  • Twisting of the bowel
  • A hard lump of stool (fecal impaction)
  • Intussusception, which is the intestine folding into itself, cutting off the flow of partly digested food and eventually cutting off blood flow to the tissues
  • Narrowing of the bowel that has been present since birth

How can I take care of myself when I go home

  • How long it takes to get better depends on the cause of your intestinal obstruction and the treatment you need. You may need to make dietary or other lifestyle changes to prevent future bowel obstructions.


  • Your provider will give you a list of your medicines when you leave the hospital.
  • Know your medicines. Know what they look like, how much you should take each time, how often you are to take them, and why you take each one.
  • Take your medicines exactly as your provider tells you to.
  • Carry a list of your medicines in your wallet or purse. Include any nonprescription medicines and supplements on the list.
  • Your provider may prescribe medicine to:
  • Treat pain
  • Treat or prevent an infection
  • Prevent side effects, such as nausea or constipation, from other treatments
  • Soften stool and reduce straining with a bowel movement
  • If you have had surgery without a colostomy, to care for your incision:
  • Keep your surgery site clean.
  • If you are told to change your dressing on your incision, wash your hands before and after changing the dressing and after disposing of the dressing.
  • If you have had a colostomy:
  • You will have a pouch covering your stoma (the part of the intestine outside the body) to collect stool as it drains. Pouches must be emptied regularly so that they do not become too heavy and leak. Some pouches may be opened or unclamped at one end to allow drainage without removing the pouch. Other pouches can be removed, emptied, and cleaned before they are reattached. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions for your type of pouch.
  • You will need to learn to care for your stoma and change the pouch.


  • Follow your provider’s instructions for follow-up appointments.
  • Keep appointments for any routine testing you may need.
  • If you are age 50 or older, you should have colorectal cancer screening with a test for blood in the stool and a sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy, or barium enema. You may need to start colorectal cancer screening earlier if a member of your immediate family has had colon polyps or colon cancer, especially if their cancer occurred before they were 50 years old.
  • Talk with your provider about any questions or fears you have.

Diet, Exercise, and Other Lifestyle Changes

  • Follow the treatment plan your healthcare provider prescribes.
  • Follow activity restrictions, such as not driving or operating machinery, as recommended by your healthcare provider or pharmacist, especially if you are taking pain medicines.
  • Get plenty of rest while you’re recovering. Try to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night
  • Ask your provider about any changes you may need in your diet.
  • Eat a diet high in fiber and low in fat and cholesterol. If you are not used to high-fiber diets, begin slowly.
  • Drink plenty of water to help your intestines work well.
  • Exercise as your provider recommends.
  • Don’t smoke. Smoking reduces blood flow to the intestines.

Call your healthcare provider if you have new or worsening:

  • Change in bowel habits, such as pain, mucus, diarrhea, constipation, or other intestinal problems
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Abdominal pain that goes away and then comes back worse than it was
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Blood in your bowel movements
  • Blood in your vomit
  • Signs of infection around your surgical wound if you had surgery. These include:
  • The area around the wound is more red or painful
  • The wound area is very warm to touch
  • You have blood, pus, or other fluid coming from the wound area
  • You have a fever higher than 101.5° F (38.6° C)
  • You have chills or muscle aches