Bowel Obstruction
How long can someone live with a blocked large intestine?

Several things affect how long someone can live with a blocked large intestine (also called a bowel obstruction).

Surgery may be considered if it has the potential to solve the problem by removing or reducing the obstruction. Surgery is an option if the blockage is caused by a tumor pressing on the bowel, or if there’s scar tissue or twisting of the bowel that prevents movement of stool. Surgery is only considered if someone can tolerate the surgical procedure and recovery that is required.

The patient, the family or the health care team may decide that surgery is not an option. Then, non-surgical treatments are used to try to decrease the degree of blockage, to stimulate the bowel, and to manage symptoms. These treatments may include the following:

  • A medication called dexamethasone (Decadron®) may decrease the swelling around a tumor and improve bowel function;
  • Other medications may stimulate the bowel to move;
  • A medication, called octreotide (Sandostatin®) may decrease the amount of fluids normally produced by the digestive tract. It’s usually used when a patient is no longer taking any food or fluids orally. With less fluid, there may be less nausea and abdominal discomfort;
  • A nasogastric tube also known as an NG tube (tube inserted through the nose into the stomach) may reduce pressure and ease symptoms.

The length of time someone can live with an obstruction depends on several factors:

  • Overall strength and condition
    People who are active and have a fair amount of reserve strength and energy do better than people who are very weak.
  • Degree of blockage
    A full blockage is a bigger problem than a partial blockage. With a partial blockage, people usually can sip fluids or take ice chips, which lengthens survival time.
  • Effect of treatments
    If treatments can decrease the blockage or reduce pressure, then the person may be able to sip fluids or take ice chips, which lengthens survival time.
  • Complications
    Complications may reduce survival time. There may be infections such as pneumonia, or intestinal bleeding. The obstructed bowel may not be getting enough oxygen, or the bowel may become perforated, that is, a hole may develop in the intestinal wall. These complications are unpredictable, and may bring death within a few hours.

Without any fluids (either as sips, ice chips or intravenously) people with a complete bowel obstruction most often survive a week or two. Sometimes it’s only a few days, sometimes as long as three weeks. With fluids, survival time may be extended by a few weeks or even a month or two. With a bowel obstruction, things may go better than expected, but it’s important to prepare for sudden, unexpected changes.

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