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How do you fix a small bowel obstruction without surgery?

Small bowel obstruction (SBO) is a medical condition characterized by the blockage of the small intestine, leading to symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, and vomiting. Traditionally, SBO has been managed through surgical intervention. However, in recent years, there has been a growing interest in non-surgical methods for fixing SBO. These non-surgical treatments focus on allowing the small bowel to rest and shrink back to its normal size, thereby reducing the impact of adhesions that are causing the obstruction. In this article, we will explore some of the non-surgical options for treating SBO and how they can provide relief without the need for surgery.

Nasogastric (NG) tube insertion

One of the key non-surgical treatments for SBO is the insertion of a nasogastric (NG) tube. This is a thin plastic tube that is passed through one of the nostrils and down into the stomach. The purpose of the NG tube is to suction fluid from the stomach, relieving pressure and reducing the distension caused by the obstruction.

The procedure for NG tube insertion involves the patient being in an upright or semi-upright position. The tube is lubricated and guided through the nasal passage into the throat and down into the stomach. The position of the tube is confirmed using a stethoscope to listen for air passing through the tube and an X-ray to ensure proper placement.

The NG tube plays an important role in fixing SBO as it helps to decompress the bowel, allowing it to rest and reducing the strain on the affected area. By removing fluid and gas from the stomach, the pressure on the small intestine is relieved, and the obstruction has a chance to resolve on its own.

Rest and fasting

Rest is a crucial component of non-surgical management for SBO. The small bowel needs time to recover from the obstruction and return to its normal size. One way to facilitate this is through fasting, which involves abstaining from food and sometimes even liquids for a certain period. During the fasting period, the digestive system is given a break, allowing the small bowel to rest and heal.

While fasting, it is essential to closely monitor the patient’s condition and provide support. Intravenous fluids may be administered to maintain hydration and electrolyte balance. Regular assessments, including vital signs, urine output, and lab tests, are conducted to ensure the patient’s safety and well-being.

Oral or intravenous fluids

Fluid therapy is an integral part of managing SBO without surgery. Depending on the severity of the obstruction and the patient’s condition, fluids may be administered either orally or intravenously. The goal is to maintain adequate hydration and prevent complications such as dehydration or electrolyte imbalances.

Oral fluids are typically introduced once the obstruction starts to resolve, and the patient can tolerate intake by mouth. Clear fluids such as water, broth, and gelatin are often recommended initially, followed by a gradual transition to a regular diet.

In cases where oral intake is not possible or insufficient, intravenous fluids may be administered. This involves providing fluid and necessary nutrients directly into the bloodstream, ensuring proper hydration and nourishment.

Monitoring and adjusting fluid intake is essential to prevent overhydration or dehydration, as both can have negative impacts on the body. Regular assessments of urine output, electrolyte levels, and the patient’s overall condition are crucial for optimizing fluid therapy.


Medications can also play a role in non-surgical treatment for SBO. They are often prescribed to manage symptoms, relieve discomfort, and promote bowel movement. Some of the commonly used medications include:

– Analgesics: These help to alleviate pain associated with SBO.
– Antiemetics: These medications help to control nausea and vomiting, which are common symptoms of SBO.
– Prokinetics: These medications promote movement within the gastrointestinal tract, aiding in the passage of the obstructed bowel.
– Antispasmodics: These medications help to relax the muscles of the intestines, easing the strain caused by the obstruction.

It is important to note that medications should be used under the guidance of a healthcare professional and closely monitored for any potential side effects.

Use of bowel rest agents

Bowel rest is an essential aspect of non-surgical treatment for SBO. Bowel rest agents are medications that temporarily suppress bowel activity, allowing the small intestine to rest and heal. These agents may be administered orally or intravenously and are typically used in combination with other non-surgical interventions.

Bowel rest agents work by reducing intestinal secretions, slowing down peristalsis (the movement of the intestines), and decreasing muscle contractions. This combination of effects helps to reduce the strain on the obstructed area, allowing it to relax and potentially resolve the obstruction.

The administration and monitoring of bowel rest agents require close cooperation between the medical team and the patient. Regular assessment of bowel sounds, abdominal distension, and overall symptoms is necessary to ensure the effectiveness and safety of the treatment.

Monitoring and evaluation

Monitoring and evaluation are vital aspects of non-surgical treatment for SBO. Regular assessment of the patient’s condition allows healthcare providers to track progress, identify potential complications, and make necessary adjustments to the treatment plan.

Physical examination, including the measurement of vital signs and abdominal assessment, is routinely performed to evaluate the patient’s response to non-surgical interventions. Imaging techniques such as X-ray or computed tomography (CT) scans may be used to assess the improvement in bowel distension and the resolution of the obstruction.

Lifestyle and dietary modifications

After an episode of SBO, making certain lifestyle and dietary modifications can help prevent recurrence and maintain a healthy digestive system. It is important to follow any post-SBO dietary recommendations provided by the healthcare team, which may include:

– Gradual reintroduction of solid foods
– Increased fiber intake
– Adequate hydration
– Regular exercise and physical activity

Incorporating these changes into daily life can support the healing process and reduce the risk of future obstructions.


In conclusion, non-surgical treatment options for small bowel obstruction offer a viable alternative to traditional surgical intervention. These methods focus on allowing the bowel to rest and heal through the use of a nasogastric tube, fasting, fluid therapy, medications, bowel rest agents, and lifestyle modifications. By carefully monitoring the patient’s progress and symptoms, healthcare providers can evaluate the effectiveness of these non-surgical approaches and potentially avoid the need for surgical intervention. Early recognition and management of SBO are crucial in order to optimize outcomes and improve the overall quality of life for individuals affected by this condition. Continued research and advancements in non-surgical treatments further hold the potential to enhance patient care and outcomes in the future.


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