Blocked Intestine or Gastrointestinal Obstruction

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 03/2019

A gastrointestinal (GI) obstruction is when a person’s GI tract is blocked. The GI tract is made up of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. During the usual process of digestion, food and fluids move through the GI tract. Enzymes, fluids, and electrolytes help the body absorb nutrients during this process.

When a person has a GI obstruction, food and fluids cannot move through the system as usual. A GI obstruction may be from something inside the GI tract that blocks the passage. Something outside the GI tract can also cause an obstruction if it presses on and collapses the GI tract. Sometimes, cancer can stick to the bowel surface, which affects bowel contractions.

When there is a blockage, the intestinal contractions that move the food can cause intense pain. These movements are called peristalsis. A GI obstruction is a serious and even life-threatening problem if it is not treated.

GI obstructions are most common for people with these cancers:

  • Colorectal cancer

  • Ovarian cancer

  • Esophageal cancer

  • Stomach cancer

  • Pancreatic cancer

GI obstructions can also occur with many other types of cancers, though less commonly.

Causes of a GI obstruction

Some of the causes of a GI obstruction are:

  • Stool, or feces, that has become hard and difficult to pass

  • Twisting of the bowel

  • Scar tissue in the bowel

  • A tumor inside the GI tract

  • A tumor pressing on the outside of the GI tract

Symptoms of a GI obstruction

People with a GI obstruction may have these symptoms:

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting that may contain food, drinks, or medicines taken more than several hours before the vomiting

  • Pain that feels better after vomiting

  • Feeling food get stuck as it goes through the GI tract after eating

  • Cramping from the movement of the intestine as it tries to move food along

  • Not being able to have a bowel movement or pass gas, despite needing to

Relieving side effects is an important part of cancer care and treatment. This is called palliative care or supportive care. Talk with your health care team about any symptoms you may experience. This includes any new symptoms or a change in symptoms.

Treating a GI obstruction

The treatment of a GI obstruction depends on the cause. Some ways to initially treat or manage a GI obstruction are:

  • Enemas and other options to loosen and/or soften the stool for a blockage caused by hard stool.

  • Using a tube to remove what is in the stomach and prevent more pain. The tube, called a nasogastric tube, is inserted through the nose down to the stomach.

  • Receiving nutrients through an intravenous (IV) tube instead of eating or drinking for a few days. This can help rest and reverse a twisted bowel.

  • Taking medicine recommended by your doctor to relieve nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, swelling, or pain.

If these options do not relieve an obstruction, the following may be needed:

  • Surgery to clear a path for food to go through the GI tract

  • Placing an expandable tube called a stent into the site of the blockage

Related Resources


Types of Cancer

More Information

National Cancer Institute: Gastrointestinal Complications