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Which Symptoms Require Small Intestine Surgery?

By Erin J. Hill
Updated May 17, 2024
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The most common cause of small intestine surgery is an obstruction in a portion of the intestinal tract. There are a variety of potential causes for an obstruction, including Crohn’s disease, cancer, adhesions, hernias, and foreign matter such as gallstones. The most prevalent symptoms for any of these potential causes is stomach pain, gastrointestinal upset, nausea, vomiting, and fatigue. One or all symptoms may be present.

A bowel obstruction is a serious condition that sometimes warrants small intestine surgery, although not in many cases. Stomach pain is the most common symptom, but since this is also common with any number of ailments, diagnosis often takes a while to achieve. Many people with certain conditions can go many months, or even years, before an obstruction is found.

If an obstruction is severe enough to need small intestine surgery, pain is often very severe. It is often localized in the upper portion of the abdomen, although pain anywhere in the digestive system may occur if waste matter becomes compacted or trapped. In some conditions, such as in some Crohn’s patients, itching around the anus or in the rectum may also occur.

Symptoms may begin and then gradually increase as the small intestines become more closed off and obstructed. This can take many weeks, months, or years to occur depending on the underlying cause. Most patients may initially believe that they have more common and less serious conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, stomach flu, or acid reflux. The diagnosis of an obstruction is often one of exclusion, with testing being done only once all common ailments have been ruled out.

Once small intestine surgery has been deemed necessary, the patient will be required to enter the hospital. The contents of the stomach and intestines are generally emptied and no food or drinks are allowed for several hours before surgery. Surgery may be complex or relatively uneventful depending on the cause.

The underlying cause of small intestine surgery will need to be treated to prevent additional symptoms and complications from occurring. Inflammatory conditions like Crohn’s disease may be treated using medications. Cancers will need to be treated using a combination of therapies in many cases, including surgery and chemotherapy. Gallstones will be removed and sometimes the gallbladder itself will have to be surgically removed as well.

Small intestine surgery is generally used as a last result. Most cases of obstruction and other bowel disorders can be safely and successfully treated without surgery. All types of surgery carry with them certain risks, including infection and even death when anesthesia is used. These are rare but should be taken into consideration when determining appropriate treatment options.

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