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Bowel Problems


Healthgrades Editorial Staff

What are bowel problems?

Bowel problems comprise a number of different illnesses or abnormalities that affect the gastrointestinal tract. These include intestinal obstruction, structural abnormalities of the bowel, celiac disease, diverticulitis, inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease), infections, tumors, and irritable bowel syndrome. Symptoms of bowel problems include abdominal pain and spasms, gas, bloating, inability to defecate or pass gas, rectal bleeding, loose and watery stools, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting, and weight loss.

The passage of food residue and waste products through the intestines can be interrupted or halted by the presence of a bowel obstruction. The cause of the blockage can be mechanical, meaning that there is a physical obstruction. Sources of mechanical obstruction include scar tissue, adhesions, foreign bodies, gallstones, entrapment through a hernia, tumors, fecal impaction, and volvulus (twisting of the intestines). Ileus, a malfunctioning of the bowel’s motility, is another type of obstruction. Causes of ileus include electrolyte imbalances, gastroenteritis (inflammation or infection of the stomach and intestines), appendicitis, surgical complications, and obstruction of the mesenteric artery, which supplies blood to the abdomen.

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Bowel problems may also occur as a result of problems during fetal development in the womb. For example, malrotation, or failure of the bowel to properly rotate in utero, can cause a blockage or twisting. Malrotation can also result in an incomplete attachment of the mesentery, which secures the placement of the bowels in the abdominal cavity, thus weakening or otherwise destabilizing the bowels. Intussusception, in which one part of the bowel collapses into an adjoining section, is another anatomical problem. Intestinal surgery that removes part of the bowel can lead to malabsorption of nutrients, a condition called short bowel syndrome.

Other conditions affecting the intestine are a result of inflammation, tearing or ulceration, and infection. These include diverticular disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and irritable bowel syndrome.

Bowel problems are usually not an emergency situation, but persistent diarrhea, a common symptom, can result in serious dehydration or other serious symptoms. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms, such as severe abdominal pain, inability to pass stool or gas, or vomiting blood.

Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Sep 6, 2016

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Medical References

  1. Intestinal obstruction. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH.
  2. Anatomic problems of the lower GI tract. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC).

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