Bowel obstruction is also known as intestinal obstruction, a condition in which your bowel is blocked. This page focuses on bowel obstruction when you have cancer.
- Bowel obstruction is a condition in which your bowel is blocked either partially or totally.
- It could be caused by multiple factors, especially in the context of palliative care.
- Common symptoms are nausea and vomiting, crampy abdominal pain or discomfort, stomach distention, constipation and inability to pass gas (fart).
- See your doctor immediately if you have any of these symptoms.
- Treatment aims to reduce your symptoms and not to cure your condition.
What is bowel obstruction?
Bowel obstruction is a condition where your bowel is blocked either partially or totally, keeping food or liquid from passing down your bowel to your rectum. In advanced cancer or terminal illness, it is a common complication that requires urgent medical attention.
What are the causes of bowel obstruction?
There are 2 types of bowel obstruction – mechanical and functional.
Mechanical bowel obstruction is when the blockage is caused by the narrowing of your bowel or bowel compression by external factors. Common causes of a mechanical bowel obstruction include:
- narrowing due to a tumour (cancer) or a foreign body in your bowel
- compression of your bowel by external factors such as liquid in your stomach or tumours outside your bowel
- scars on your bowel after a surgery that could make your bowel sticky (post-surgical adhesions).
Functional bowel obstruction is when the nerves or muscles of your bowel are damaged, stopping food or liquid from moving down your bowel. The damage could be caused by cancer treatment such as radiotherapy or surgery to remove a tumour in your stomach. It could also be caused by certain medications that stop the normal bowel movement (peristalsis).
In advanced cancer or a terminal illness, bowel obstruction is usually caused by a mixture of mechanical and functional factors.
What are the symptoms of bowel obstruction?
Common symptoms of bowel obstruction are:
- severe crampy tummy pain that occurs suddenly
- nausea and vomiting
- distention of your stomach or bloating
- inability to pass gas (fart)
- loud gurgling bowel sounds from your stomach.
It is also normal to feel anxious and distressed when you have symptoms of bowel obstruction.
See your doctor straight away if you have any of these symptoms.
How is bowel obstruction diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and your medical history, as well as do a physical examination, including a rectum examination (up your bottom). They may also do other tests such as an x-ray of your stomach or a CT scan to diagnose bowel obstruction and find out what is causing the obstruction.
How is bowel obstruction treated?
As the condition is often caused by more than one thing, treatment can be complex. Before treatment is started, your doctor may ask you about your wishes or whether you have an advance care plan. You may be admitted to hospital to receive treatment and be referred to a palliative care specialist.
Treatment of bowel obstruction often depends on the cause and could be medical or surgical. These treatments are not meant to cure your condition. They aim to make you feel more comfortable by reducing your symptoms.
Medical treatment includes prescribing medications to relieve nausea, vomiting and pain. Depending on the cause of your bowel obstruction, some medications aim to relieve the compression of your bowel by a tumour. Some of these medications can be given under your skin (subcutaneously) via a syringe driver.
Sometimes, a soft tube called a nasogastric tube is inserted into your stomach through your nose to empty your stomach contents and reduce vomiting (being sick).
Surgical treatment includes performing certain procedures or surgeries either to relieve the obstruction or remove a tumour if there is one.
What support is available for bowel obstruction?
It can be scary to experience the symptoms of bowel obstruction. Talk through your feelings with your family members or health professionals taking care of you. Read more about how to talk about your feelings.
Below are some support services and information for people affected by cancer and their family/whānau:
Emotions and cancer Cancer Society of NZ
How we can help Cancer Society of NZ
NZ cancer services – find a hospital/service near you Healthpoint NZ
More cancer support groups
The following links provide further information about bowel obstruction. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.
Your guide to coping with bowel obstruction NHS Foundation Trust, UK
Intestinal obstruction Mayo Clinic, US
Intestinal obstruction MedlinePlus, US
Intestinal or bowel obstruction – discharge MedlinePlus, US