What is Partial Bowel Obstruction?

A partial bowel obstruction is a condition involving the intestinal tract, characterized by incomplete passage of stool through the bowels. Over time, it can develop into a total obstruction, in which case the contents of the intestines will not be able to move at all past the obstruction. Partial bowel obstructions are a cause for concern and they should be treated as quickly as possible, before the patient develops complications such as bowel ischemia, in which part of the bowel can die as a result of oxygen deprivation.

Numerous things can cause a partial bowel obstruction. Some common causes include: tumors; ingestion of a large foreign body; hernias; adhesions; impacted stool caused by constipation; a volvulus or kink in the bowel; and intussusception, in which the bowel telescopes in on itself and the contents cannot move freely past the obstruction. Patients with a partial bowel obstruction can develop nausea, vomiting, cramps, abdominal pain, and tenderness in the abdomen. Some may note that they strain on the toilet and cannot defecate, and there can be a reduction in flatulence.

If a doctor suspects that a patient has a partial bowel obstruction, a medical imaging study is usually performed to get a look at the bowel. This can include asking the patient to undergo a barium swallow so that the intestinal tract will be highlighted on an x-ray image. It is important to visualize the bowel to determine the location and nature of the obstruction, as this can impact the choice of treatment.

Immediate treatment for a partial bowel obstruction can include the insertion of a nasogastric (NG) tube to relieve buildups of fluid and gas in the stomach so that the patient will be more comfortable. Medications for pain management may also be provided, along with intravenous fluid to keep the patient hydrated. Depending on what is causing the obstruction, treatments such as enemas, digital extraction of impacted feces, and medications can be used to try and clear the obstruction.
Around 15% of partial bowel obstructions require surgical intervention. It is important to be aware that an abdominal blockage will not usually resolve on its own, and if a partial bowel obstruction is not treated, it can develop into a total bowel obstruction. This can be far more serious, and is much more likely to require surgery. People who notice the signs of bowel obstruction should seek medical attention as quickly as possible.