Digestive Blockage Symptoms

The digestive system functions to break down food into a form that the body can use for energy. In addition to breaking down food particles, the digestive system moves the food through the digestive tract from the mouth to the anus, which expels waste. If an obstruction of the small or large intestine occurs, due to conditions such as intestinal adhesions, hernias or tumors, the movement of food or fluids is blocked.

Abdominal Pain

A digestive blockage causes abdominal pain. A blockage of the intestines can be partial or complete and the extent of the blockage determines the level of pain. If food cannot pass through the digestive tract at all, the pain may feel more intense as the pressure builds. A partial blockage produces pain that ranges from mild cramps to tenderness, and the pain may come and go. If a condition called “strangulation” occurs, blood flow is completely cut off from the area, and the abdominal pain becomes severe and steady.

Abdominal Swelling

As partially digested food builds up in the digestive tract, the abdominal region begins to swell. The swelling, also known as distention, adds to the tenderness of the abdomen. The Merck Manual reports that as food, digestive secretions and gas build up, the intestines become severely distended, a condition which progressively worsens.

Nausea and Vomiting

The small intestine functions to absorb virtually all of the nutrients for the body as well as most of the water and electrolytes. When the intestines are blocked, food builds up in the intestines, inhibiting the intestines’ ability to absorb the needed nutrients. Since the material in the intestines cannot be fully absorbed or move through properly, the patient often experiences nausea and vomiting, which can lead to dehydration, according to MayoClinic.com.


Peritonitis, an infection of the abdominal cavity, can occur when the intestines become perforated, or torn. An obstruction in the intestines reduces the blood supply to the intestinal wall. If left untreated, according to MayoClinic.com, the lack of blood causes the tissue in the intestinal wall to die. This condition, known as necrosis, can result in a tear in the intestinal wall, leading to peritonitis. The symptoms of peritonitis include abdominal pain and swelling, nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, thirst and reduced urine output. Peritonitis can become life-threatening, causing the patient to go into shock.

About this Author

Stephanie Chandler is a freelance writer whose master\’s degree in biomedical science and over 15 years experience in the scientific and pharmaceutical professions provide her with the knowledge to contribute to health topics. Chandler has been writing for corporations and small businesses since 1991. In addition to writing scientific papers and procedures, her articles are published on Overstock.com and other websites.