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What does a partial bowel obstruction feel like?

A partial bowel obstruction, also known as a partial intestinal obstruction, occurs when there is a partial blockage in the intestines that prevents food, fluids, and gas from moving through normally. This can lead to a variety of symptoms that may indicate a partial obstruction is occurring.

What are the symptoms of a partial bowel obstruction?

Some of the most common symptoms of a partial bowel obstruction include:

  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • Bloating and abdominal distension
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Constipation and inability to pass gas or have a bowel movement
  • Diarrhea in some cases
  • Loss of appetite

The abdominal pain associated with a partial obstruction is often described as crampy, achy, or colicky in nature. The pain may start and stop intermittently as the intestines contract to try and squeeze past the blockage. It can range from mild discomfort to severe, agonizing pain.

Bloating occurs as food and intestinal contents back up behind the obstructed area. This can cause the abdomen to become firm, swollen, and distended. Burping or belching that provides no relief from the bloating sensation is also common.

Nausea and vomiting may occur as the intestinal obstruction interferes with normal digestion. Vomiting may provide temporary relief from the pain and abdominal distension.

A partial obstruction will slow or stop the passage of stool through the intestines. This can lead to constipation and an inability to pass gas rectally. In some cases, liquidy diarrhea may occur as the intestinal contents seep past the blockage.

Loss of appetite is common since eating tends to exacerbate the abdominal pain and feelings of fullness. Dehydration may occur from persistent vomiting and poor oral intake.

What causes a partial bowel obstruction?

Some of the most common causes of a partial small bowel obstruction include:

  • Adhesions or scar tissue from previous abdominal or pelvic surgery
  • Hernias that can trap sections of bowel
  • Inflammation from Crohn’s disease or diverticulitis
  • Cancerous tumors in the abdomen or pelvis
  • Twisting of a section of bowel (volvulus)
  • Intussusception – telescoping of the bowel into itself
  • Foreign bodies, bezoars, or impacted stool

Adhesions are the most frequent cause of small bowel obstructions. They form as the body heals from infection, surgery or injury and are bands of scar tissue that can kink off or restrict sections of bowel.

Hernias occur when an organ or tissue protrudes through a weak spot in the muscle or surrounding connective tissue. This creates a bulge or pocket where the bowel can become trapped or pinched off.

Diseases like Crohn’s or diverticulitis cause intestinal inflammation, which can narrow the intestinal passage and create blockages. Tumors in the abdomen and pelvis may also directly compress or restrict the bowels.

Less commonly, a section of bowel may twist on itself (called volvulus) or telescope in on itself (intussusception). This can create an obstruction in the affected segment.

Ingested foreign material, large food masses like meat or coins, and severe constipation with impacted stool, can also partially obstruct bowel flow.

Who is at risk for developing a partial bowel obstruction?

Those at increased risk for a partial bowel obstruction include:

  • People with a history of abdominal or pelvic surgery
  • People with a hernia, especially a hiatal hernia
  • People with Crohn’s disease, diverticulitis, or cancer
  • People with a history of radiation to the abdomen or pelvis
  • Older adults who are immobilized or debilitated
  • Those with a history of bowel obstructions

Previous abdominal surgery is the top risk factor for developing a partial small bowel obstruction later in life. Operations like hysterectomies, colon resections, appendectomies, and surgeries to correct hernias can all potentially cause adhesions.

People with inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s or chronic diverticulitis have chronic intestinal inflammation that can progress to fibrotic strictures and blockages over time. Radiation therapy to the abdomen or pelvis also promotes scar tissue formation.

Elderly, immobile individuals have slower gastrointestinal motility and are prone to constipation and fecal impaction. This can increase their risk of obstructions from large bowel contents.

Those who have experienced an obstruction in the past are at higher risk for recurrence. Some individuals may have underlying disorders that predispose them to developing repeated bowel obstructions.

How is a partial bowel obstruction diagnosed?

Diagnosing a partial bowel obstruction involves obtaining a medical history and performing a physical exam, along with selected tests that may include:

  • Abdominal x-rays
  • CT scan of the abdomen/pelvis
  • Blood tests

The medical history will focus on risk factors like prior surgeries or abdominal diseases. Timing, location, and characteristics of the abdominal pain are noted, along with bowel habits, nausea/vomiting, etc.

On physical exam, abdominal tenderness, distension, and high-pitched bowel sounds may be noted. Signs of dehydration may be present if vomiting has been severe.

Plain abdominal x-rays may reveal air and fluid levels in dilated loops of bowel, indicating an obstruction. The obstruction site is sometimes identified by the cutoff point of the dilated bowel.

A CT scan provides more detailed images to locate the obstruction and identify its cause. Lab tests reveal electrolyte imbalances from dehydration and kidney function impacts.

What conditions are similar to a partial bowel obstruction?

There are several abdominal conditions that can mimic the signs and symptoms of a partial bowel obstruction. These include:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Small bowel bacterial overgrowth
  • Gallstones
  • Gastritis or peptic ulcer disease
  • Gastroenteritis
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Gynecological conditions

IBS and small intestine bacterial overgrowth can cause intermittent cramping, bloating, nausea and constipation that may be mistaken for a partial obstruction.

Biliary colic from gallstones causes sudden, severe attacks of right upper abdominal pain with nausea, vomiting, and gas pains that can resemble a bowel obstruction.

Gastritis and peptic ulcers can flare up with burning epigastric pain, bloating and vomiting. Viral gastroenteritis mimics obstruction symptoms too.

Painful gynecological conditions like ovarian cysts, fibroids, endometriosis or pelvic inflammatory disease may have overlapping symptoms.

A careful medical history and physical, along with selected lab tests and medical imaging, can help distinguish these other conditions from a true mechanical bowel obstruction.

What complications can occur with a partial bowel obstruction?

Potential complications that can result from a partial bowel obstruction include:

  • Strangulation – obstruction of intestinal blood supply
  • Bowel perforation
  • Sepsis
  • Dehydration and electrolyte disturbances
  • Small bowel obstruction

Strangulation occurs when the intestinal twist or blockage also cuts off the blood supply to that section of bowel. This can damage the intestinal wall and may progress to bowel perforation, peritonitis and sepsis.

The obstructed bowel dilates and thin outs over time, increasing the risk of rupture and intestinal contents leaking into the abdominal cavity (perforation). This causes severe peritonitis.

Sepsis results when bacteria from perforated bowel spread to the bloodstream. Dehydration and electrolyte imbalances can occur from persistent vomiting.

A partial obstruction that is not resolved may worsen into a complete small bowel obstruction, a medical emergency requiring immediate treatment.

How is a partial bowel obstruction treated?

Treatment of a partial bowel obstruction involves:

  • IV fluids for hydration
  • Relieving bowel rest with NG tube
  • Monitoring in hospital
  • Medications for pain and nausea
  • Surgery for some cases

Hospitalization is usually required to monitor and manage a partial obstruction. IV fluids are given to correct dehydration and electrolyte abnormalities. A nasogastric tube may be placed to suction out intestinal contents and decompress the bowel.

Pain medications and antiemetics help control symptoms. With supportive treatment, many partial obstructions resolve on their own without surgery.

Surgery is considered if the obstruction does not improve, signs of strangulation or perforation develop, or a complete obstruction occurs. The obstructed section of bowel may be removed, adhesions lysed, or hernias repaired.

What is the outlook for a partial bowel obstruction?

The outlook for a partial bowel obstruction depends on:

  • Cause and severity of the obstruction
  • Presence of bowel compromise or perforation
  • Timing of diagnosis and treatment
  • Patient’s age and medical status
  • Need for surgical intervention

Mild, partial obstructions often resolve within a few days of conservative treatment. More severe or complete obstructions typically require surgery to prevent serious complications and carry higher risks.

Strangulation and perforation increase morbidity and mortality. Delayed diagnosis and treatment also worsen the prognosis.

Elderly, frail patients are at increased risk of complications from bowel obstructions in general. Surgery also poses higher risks for older patients with comorbidities.

Overall, early recognition of a partial obstruction and proper medical attention can help prevent progression to a complete obstruction and improve the chances of a good recovery without surgery.

Can a partial bowel obstruction be prevented?

It is not always possible to prevent a partial bowel obstruction, but some measures that may help reduce risk include:

  • Increase fiber intake and stay well hydrated to prevent constipation
  • Avoid dehydration, which increases bowel obstruction risk
  • Maintain activity and mobility to stimulate bowel function
  • Treat hernias to prevent incarceration
  • Control medical conditions like Crohn’s disease
  • Use surgical technique to minimize adhesion formation

Consuming a high fiber diet with plenty of fluids helps soften stool and prevent impaction issues. Mild laxatives may be used to treat constipation.

Drinking adequate fluids prevents dehydration which can precipitate an obstruction. Staying mobile as able also keeps bowel activity regular.

Repairing abdominal wall and hiatal hernias can prevent a portion of bowel from becoming trapped and obstructed. Keeping Crohn’s disease and other medical conditions in remission reduces inflammation in the intestines.

During abdominal surgery, the surgeon can take measures to minimize tissue trauma and use fine sutures, anti-adhesion agents, and gentle tissue handling to reduce future adhesions and scarring.


A partial bowel obstruction presents with cramping, distention, nausea, constipation and sometimes diarrhea. It is most often caused by postoperative adhesions but hernias, tumors, twisting, and severe constipation can also precipitate it.

Diagnosis involves x-rays, CT scanning and lab tests. Supportive medical treatment can resolve many partial obstructions, but some require surgery if complications arise or a complete blockage develops.

Prompt evaluation and treatment are key. While not always preventable, eating a high fiber diet, staying hydrated, and controlling medical conditions may reduce risk. Patients with a history of bowel obstructions need monitoring for any recurrence of symptoms.

In 400 words or more, summarize the key points:

A partial bowel obstruction is a blockage in the intestines that prevents normal passage of food, fluids and gas. It causes symptoms like abdominal cramping, bloating, nausea, vomiting, and constipation. The abdominal pain is usually intermittent, colicky, and can range from mild to severe.

A partial obstruction is most commonly caused by adhesions or scar tissue from prior abdominal or pelvic surgery. Hernias, tumors, intestinal twisting, inflammation from Crohn’s or diverticulitis, and impacted stool can also lead to partial obstructions. Those with a history of surgery, hernias, abdominal disease, or radiation are at highest risk.

Diagnosis involves taking a medical history, performing a physical exam, and using x-rays or CT scans to visualize the site of obstruction. Blood tests assess dehydration. Possible complications include bowel strangulation, perforation, sepsis, electrolyte disturbances, and progression to complete obstruction.

Treatment involves hospitalization for IV fluids, observation, and bowel rest. Pain medications and anti-nausea medications help manage symptoms. If the obstruction does not resolve or complications develop, surgery may be needed to relieve the blockage.

Many partial obstructions improve with conservative treatment. However, immediate medical attention is crucial, as delay can lead to serious complications. Preventive measures include maintaining adequate hydration, treating constipation, controlling abdominal diseases, repairing hernias, and using surgical techniques to minimize adhesion formation during procedures. Those with a history of obstructions require prompt evaluation for recurrence of symptoms.