The small intestine, also known as the small bowel, is essential for digestion and nutrient absorption. However, a small bowel obstruction may occasionally occur in this region due to a blockage or underlying condition. As a result, there is the potential for severe pain and discomfort. In some cases, this condition may require a visit to an emergency room (ER) for immediate medical attention.
Small bowel, big problems
The small bowel connects the stomach to the large intestine. There are 3 sections to the small bowel known as the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum. Bile and pancreatic juices combine with partially digested food from the stomach in the duodenum to aid further digestion. In the jejunum and ileum, where the food descends, the body absorbs nutrients into the bloodstream. The remaining food becomes waste, which travels into the large intestine and eventually leaves the body. However, this process can be interrupted when there is a blockage in the small bowel, causing waste materials to build up.
What is an obstruction?
Small bowel obstruction, also known as intestinal obstruction, occurs when there is a blockage in the small intestine. This blockage prevents the regular passage of waste and digestive products through the intestines. Built-up pressure in the intestines due to this blockage can result in severe discomfort and pain in the intestine. Small bowel obstructions can limit the performance of the organ and reduce nutrient absorption.
Causes of small bowel obstruction
There are a variety of mechanical or functional causes that can lead to an obstruction in the small bowel. Surgical scars, tumors, hernias, and impacted feces can all cause mechanical obstructions. On the other hand, functional blockages can be caused by conditions like paralytic ileus. This condition causes the muscles of the intestine to stop functioning normally. Another functional condition is pseudo-obstruction, which affects intestinal motility. Although small bowel obstruction can happen to any individual, risk factors include a history of abdominal surgery, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), radiation therapy to the abdomen, or hernias.
Backed up and uncomfortable
People with small bowel obstructions have symptoms that may seem normal but can be signs of the condition. For instance, almost every individual with a blockage experiences constipation or the inability to pass gas at some point. Other common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, bloating, or abdomen swelling. Over time, patients lack appetite and have severe abdominal pain that comes in waves. Due to vomiting or the inability to eat or drink, some people may also experience dehydration, lethargy, and electrolyte imbalance.
Let's get checked
If a blockage is suspected, the doctor will begin with a physical examination and medical history review. The next steps include x-rays or computerized tomography (CT) scans to identify the blockage. Treatment options can vary depending on the severity and underlying cause of the condition. Mild cases may need rest, pain medication, and intravenous (IV) fluids. However, surgery is necessary in more severe cases or when non-surgical treatments are ineffective at treating the symptoms. A small percentage of patients need emergency surgery, especially if a tumor or hernia is present.
When the ER is necessary
Emergency medical care is required if a person has persistent, severe abdominal pain accompanied by other symptoms like vomiting or the inability to pass gas. Seek medical care immediately to avoid additional complications from untreated small bowel obstruction. A patient can get treatment and return to everyday activities quickly, thanks to minimally invasive surgery (MIS), which can address the blockage.