IBD Sufferers: Know the Symptoms of Bowel Obstruction

Quincy AdamUC Learn

Man Holding Stomach
For anyone who suffers from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), being aware of the symptoms of bowel obstruction will help you know when to seek medical attention promptly. Anyone with IBD should be well informed about its symptoms and risks.

Bowel Obstructions Are More Common in Crohn’s Patients

Chronic inflammation present in the digestive tract reduces the width of the opening through which food, fluids and gases pass through the intestine. Crohn’s disease sufferers can have inflammation anywhere in their entire digestive system. Therefore, people with Crohn’s are more likely to experience a bowel obstruction compared to ulcerative colitis (UC) patients, whose inflammation is confined to the inner lining of the large intestine.

Obstructions occur most commonly in the small intestine, which is narrower than the large intestine. Additionally, Crohn’s patients often have inflammation in both the inner and the outer layers of the small intestine, reducing the available space even further.

Intestinal Scarring Can Result from Chronic Inflammation

When inflammation is chronic (present for an extended period of time), scar tissue, or fibrosis, often forms. Scar tissue is not as flexible as healthy tissue, and tends to form thicker, narrower sections in the intestines, called strictures. Unless it is removed by surgery, fibrosis will remain in your digestive tract even during times when you are free of symptoms. However, when a flare-up does occur, areas affected by fibrosis are especially prone to obstruction, as inflammation further narrows the passage for food and drink to pass through the scarred area.

Contact Your Doctor Quickly if You Notice Symptoms

The bottom line for IBD sufferers is to understand the symptoms of bowel obstruction. Contact your doctor right away if you are experiencing any of the following:

  • Abdominal pain, cramping, and/or bloating, especially after a meal
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation

The severity of the above symptoms can be an indication of the severity of strictures that may be present as a result of your IBD. If you are experiencing obstruction symptoms due to a flare-up, your doctor may suggest taking a steroid medication to quickly reduce the inflammation. This will allow the contents of your intestines to once again easily pass. Reducing the fiber in your diet may also be helpful, as fiber can further irritate an already sensitive intestinal lining. Sometimes, however, IBD symptoms no longer respond well to dietary changes and/or medications, and surgery becomes necessary.

Bowel Obstruction is a Serious Condition

If a bowel obstruction is ignored, the results can be serious. When there is a blockage in any part of the intestine, the area behind the narrowed location tends to build up pressure and can eventually rupture, causing the bacteria-filled contents to spill into the abdominal cavity. A severe infection called peritonitis can follow, creating an entire new set of problems and a potentially life-threatening situation. Additionally, UC sufferers are at a greater risk for developing colon cancer when compared to the general population; obstruction symptoms could indicate cancerous tumors which may require surgery.1

For sufferers of IBD, knowing bowel obstruction symptoms is important. Advances in medicine and surgery can help you live a normal life, especially if treatment is begun at an early stage. You don’t have to live with chronic abdominal pain. Talk to your doctor about treatment options to reduce the inflammation responsible for causing strictures before they develop into something more serious.

1 Beaugerie L, Itzkowitz SH. Cancers complicating inflammatory bowel disease. N Engl J Med. 2015;372(15):1441-52.