AssessmentsBowel obstruction: Clinical practice
USMLE® Step 1 style questions USMLE
USMLE® Step 2 style questions USMLE
A 50-year-old woman comes to the emergency department because of colicky abdominal pain for the past hour. She has a medical history of endometriosis and she has had an appendectomy and multiple cesarean sections. Physical examination shows a distended abdomen that is tympanitic to percussion. An abdominal radiograph shows dilated loops of bowel with air-fluid levels. Which of the following is the most likely underlying condition in this patient?
Content Reviewers:Rishi Desai, MD, MPH
Bowel obstruction can be defined as partial or complete.
The causes of bowel obstruction can be either functional or mechanical causes.
Among mechanical causes, one cause of small bowel obstruction in individuals who have previously undergone surgery, are postoperative adhesions.
Adhesions are fibrous bands of scar tissue that causes organs to attach to the surgical site or to other organs, causing the lumen of the bowel to get kinked or pinched tight in certain spots.
Another cause of small intestinal obstructions is hernias - which is when a portion of the bowel protrudes out of the abdominal cavity and can get trapped or tightly pinched at the point where it pokes out.
Other mechanical causes of both small and large bowel obstruction include inflammatory bowel disease which can cause strictures and adhesions, ingestion of a foreign body which can get lodged along the gastrointestinal tract, and intussusception - which is where a part of the intestine folds into the lumen of an adjacent section of bowel.
One unique situation is called a closed-loop obstruction, and it’s where the intestine is obstructed at two locations, creating a segment where nothing goes in, and nothing comes out.
Soon after a bowel obstruction, the air and bowel contents distal to the obstruction get passed, but after that happens, proximal to the obstruction, air and stool start to accumulate, causing the bowel to dilate, causing cramping abdominal pain.
Finally, some individuals develop respiratory distress from upward pressure on the diaphragm from their distended abdomen.
Now, generally speaking, in small bowel obstruction, vomiting is more common and the pain tends to be periumbilical, cramping, and intermittent - with bouts that last for a few minutes at a time.
In large bowel obstruction, vomiting is less common and the pain is lower in the abdomen and the bouts of pain are less frequent but last a bit longer.
Alternatively, a large intestinal perforation may cause a sudden relief of pain due to the nerves in the bowel wall no longer being stretched, but then it’s usually followed by progressive worsening of pain, as generalized peritonitis sets in.
Next up, lab studies include a CBC with differential, as well as a basal metabolic panel including electrolytes, BUN, and creatinine.
Leukocytosis with a neutrophil predominance is a specific sign of an underlying inflammatory response - such as inflammatory bowel disease or diverticulitis, while anemia may point to inflammatory bowel disease or colorectal cancer.
Individuals with more severe symptoms like fever, tachycardia, hypotension, and altered mental status, should have an ABG and a serum lactate, because metabolic acidosis and an elevated lactate level suggest bowel ischemia.
Diagnosis of bowel obstruction requires imaging studies, starting with an abdominal X ray.
In bowel obstruction, there are dilated loops of bowel with air-fluid levels, which show that both fluid and gas are collecting in the intestines. Usually the proximal bowel is dilated, and the distal bowel is not.
Specific X-ray signs can suggest the cause of bowel obstruction.
For example, an "apple core sign”, suggests constriction of the colonic lumen and it’s often due to a ring-shaped colon cancer.
Now if there’s bowel perforation, there’s free intraperitoneal air, called a pneumoperitoneum, and it requires immediate surgical intervention.
In hemodynamically stable individuals who don’t need emergency surgery, an abdominal CT scan with contrast - given either orally or through enema - is done next to identify the potential cause of the obstruction.