Emergency Medicine Evaluation and Management of Small Bowel Obstruction: Evidence-Based Recommendations

J Emerg Med. 2019 Feb;56(2):166-176. doi: 10.1016/j.jemermed.2018.10.024. Epub 2018 Dec 6.


Background: Small bowel obstruction (SBO) is a commonly diagnosed disease in the emergency department (ED). Recent literature has evaluated the ED investigation and management of SBO.

Objective: This review evaluates the ED investigation and management of adult SBO based on the current literature.

Discussion: SBO is most commonly due to occlusion of the small intestine, resulting in fluid and gas accumulation. This may progress to mucosal ischemia, necrosis, and perforation. A variety of etiologies are present, but in adults, adhesions are the most common cause. Several classification systems are present. However, the most important distinction is complete vs. partial and complicated vs. simple obstruction, as complete complicated SBO more commonly requires surgical intervention. History and physical examination can vary, but the most reliable findings include prior abdominal surgery, history of constipation, abdominal distension, and abnormal bowel sounds. Signs of strangulation include fever, hypotension, diffuse abdominal pain, peritonitis, and several others. Diagnosis typically requires imaging, and though plain radiographs are often ordered, they cannot exclude the diagnosis. Computed tomography and ultrasound are reliable diagnostic methods. Management includes intravenous fluid resuscitation, analgesia, and determining need for operative vs. nonoperative therapy. Nasogastric tube is useful for patients with significant distension and vomiting by removing contents proximal to the site of obstruction. Surgery is needed for strangulation and those that fail nonoperative therapy. Surgical service evaluation and admission are recommended.

Conclusion: SBO is a common reason for admission from the ED. Knowledge of recent literature can optimize diagnosis and management.

Keywords: disposition; imaging; management; nasogastric; small bowel obstruction.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Abdominal Pain / etiology
  • Disease Management
  • Emergency Medicine / methods*
  • Emergency Medicine / trends
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / organization & administration
  • Evidence-Based Practice / methods
  • Evidence-Based Practice / trends
  • Humans
  • Intestinal Obstruction / diagnosis*
  • Intestinal Obstruction / therapy*
  • Intestine, Small / abnormalities
  • Intestine, Small / diagnostic imaging
  • Intestine, Small / injuries
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Physical Examination / methods
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed / methods
  • Ultrasonography / methods
  • Vomiting / etiology