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Intestinal Obstruction

Discover the causes, symptoms, and effective treatments for intestinal obstruction, a condition that can lead to severe discomfort and potential complications.

USMLE Guide: Intestinal Obstruction


Intestinal obstruction is a condition characterized by a partial or complete blockage of the intestines, preventing the normal passage of food, fluids, and gas through the digestive system. This guide aims to provide an overview of the essential information about intestinal obstruction for USMLE preparation.

Types of Intestinal Obstruction

1. Mechanical Obstruction

Mechanical obstruction occurs when there is a physical barrier that prevents the movement of intestinal contents. It can be further classified into:

  • Adynamic Ileus: A non-mechanical obstruction caused by impaired intestinal motility, often due to surgery, medication, or electrolyte imbalances.
  • Volvulus: Twisting of the intestines on itself, leading to obstruction.
  • Intussusception: The telescoping of one segment of the intestine into another, resulting in obstruction.
  • Hernia: Protrusion of a part of the intestine through a weakened area of the abdominal wall.
  • Strangulated Hernia: A hernia that becomes constricted, leading to compromised blood supply.

2. Functional Obstruction

Functional obstruction occurs when the intestines are unable to propel contents forward due to neuromuscular abnormalities. It includes:

  • Paralytic Ileus: A non-mechanical obstruction caused by the failure of intestinal motility, often due to surgery, infection, or medications.
  • Ogilvie Syndrome: Colonic pseudo-obstruction, usually affecting the colon without any mechanical cause.

Clinical Presentation

1. Symptoms

Patients with intestinal obstruction may experience:

  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • Nausea and vomiting (often bilious in complete obstruction)
  • Abdominal distention
  • Inability to pass gas or stool
  • Loss of appetite

2. physical examination Findings

During physical examination, the following findings may be observed:

  • Abdominal distention and tenderness
  • High-pitched or absent bowel sounds
  • Visible peristaltic waves (seen in thin individuals)
  • Signs of dehydration or electrolyte imbalances


1. Imaging

  • Abdominal X-ray: May reveal dilated bowel loops, air-fluid levels, or signs of obstruction.
  • CT Scan: Provides detailed imaging and helps identify the cause and location of obstruction.

2. Laboratory Tests

  • Complete Blood Count (CBC): May show elevated white blood cell count, suggesting infection or ischemia.
  • Electrolyte Panel: Detects electrolyte imbalances caused by vomiting or dehydration.


1. Non-operative Management

Non-operative management is initially attempted in some cases, including:

  • Nasogastric Decompression: Placing a nasogastric tube can help relieve symptoms and decompress the bowel.
  • Fluid Resuscitation: intravenous fluids are administered to correct dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.
  • Correction of Underlying Cause: Addressing the primary cause, such as managing electrolyte imbalances or discontinuing medications causing obstruction.

2. Surgical Intervention

Surgery is often required for mechanical obstructions or when non-operative management fails. Procedures may include:

  • Exploratory Laparotomy: An open surgical procedure to identify and correct the cause of obstruction.
  • Bowel Resection and Anastomosis: Removal of the obstructed segment of the intestine and reconnection of the remaining healthy parts.


  • Bowel Ischemia: Reduced blood supply to the intestines may lead to tissue damage or necrosis.
  • Bowel Perforation: Increased pressure within the bowel can cause perforation, leading to peritonitis.
  • Sepsis: Infection arising from perforation or ischemic bowel can result in systemic infection and sepsis.


Intestinal obstruction is a serious condition that requires prompt diagnosis and management. Understanding the different types, clinical presentation, diagnostic methods, and treatment options is essential for success in the USMLE examination and clinical practice.

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