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What is a Stomach Obstruction?

By D. Jeffress
Updated May 17, 2024
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A stomach obstruction is a defect or a physical blockage in the organ that can cause a number of uncomfortable symptoms. In most cases, obstruction occurs at the narrow base of the stomach where it meets the duodenum, a section of tissue called the pyloric valve or sphincter. When an obstruction is present in infancy, the cause is usually a genetic defect in the valve that prevents it from relaxing and expanding. Blockages later in life may be caused by benign polyps, scar tissue from injury or surgery, ulcers, hernias, or cancerous tumors. Treatment decisions are made based on the underlying cause and severity of symptoms, but most patients need either clinical or surgical procedures to permanently correct stomach obstructions.

Pyloric stenosis is a type of inherited stomach obstruction problem that is usually present at birth. The pyloric valve and the muscles that control its contractions and expansions are thicker than usual. When food is eaten, it has trouble escaping the stomach and reaching the intestines to complete digestion. A baby might vomit frequently, have constant abdominal pains, and fail to thrive in the first six months of life. Dehydration is a major issue with pyloric stenosis that may need to be combated with intravenous fluids. Infants usually need surgery to cut away excess muscle tissue and expand the valve.

A person can develop a stomach obstruction at any age, and symptoms may come on suddenly or gradually worsen over time depending on the cause. Peptic ulcers, irritated patches along the stomach, pyloric valve, or duodenum, are common causes of obstructions. An ulcer may develop spontaneously or be caused by bacterial infection, overuse of anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, or accidentally swallowing a caustic substance. Small masses of tissue called polyps may also obstruct the valve if a person has an inflammatory autoimmune disorder or a severe infection. Finally, cancerous tumors in or near the stomach can impair normal valve functioning.

The symptoms of a stomach obstruction in an adult typically include painful cramps, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea. The abdomen may start to swell and become tender to the touch. Depending on the cause, digestive symptoms may be accompanied by fever, joint aches, and fatigue. It is very important to visit a hospital when symptoms persist for more than a few hours.

Patients who have severe symptoms are typically fitted with nasogastric tubes that are inserted through the nose, guided down the throat, and placed on the other end of the pyloric valve. The tube can deliver nutrients until the cause of stomach obstruction is diagnosed and treated. Ulcers and polyps caused by bacteria may be able to be relieved with antibiotic medications. In most cases, however, a patient eventually needs surgery. A stent may be placed in the valve to hold it open or it may be removed completely and the upper and lower portions sutured together. Additional treatment in the form of surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation is usually needed if cancer is present.

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