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Dr QM Leong
Dr QM Leong

Can A Bowel Obstruction Cause Back Pain? Understanding The Connection

Bowel obstruction is a medical condition that significantly disrupts regular bowel movements. It can manifest as a severe condition, leading to symptoms like a swollen belly and intense pain.

But can a bowel obstruction itself cause back pain? Yes. 

While this is not a common symptom, back pain is still a major concern by many patients. This article explores the relationship between bowel obstruction and back pain, and will highlight the factors that link them.

The Relationship Between Bowel Obstruction And Back Pain

Bowel obstruction can stem from various causes, ranging from common issues like chronic constipation, long-standing constipation, and faecal impaction to more serious ailments such as rectal cancer or colon cancer. Bowel obstruction will often present itself as one of more of the following:

  • Abdominal Pain: People who suffer from bowel obstruction frequently experience abdominal pain, which can range from mild discomfort to severe.
  • Changes in Bowel Movement Frequency: This includes both infrequent bowel movements and, in some cases, diarrhoea if partial obstruction allows some liquid stool to pass.
  • Constipation: In cases of partial bowel obstruction, one of the early symptoms can be constipation, as the passage of stool is hindered.
  • Back Pain: While less common, back pain, especially in the lower back, can occur, possibly due to the pressure exerted by the swollen intestine or as a secondary response to the abdominal pain.

Factors Contributing To Back Pain

Bowel obstruction can indirectly cause back pain. For instance, dull lower back pain or persistent back pain can be a secondary effect of extreme pressure and chronic pain caused by an obstructed bowel.

Here are factors that may contribute to back pain.

  • Direct Pressure and Distension: When a bowel obstruction occurs, it can lead to the accumulation of intestinal contents, gas, and fluid upstream of the obstruction. This accumulation causes distension and swelling of the intestine. The distended intestine can exert pressure on the abdomen and surrounding structures, including the back. This pressure can result in discomfort or pain in the lower back area.
  • Inflammatory Response: A bowel obstruction can trigger an inflammatory response. Inflammation generally can cause aching or discomfort not limited to the site of the problem. Therefore, the inflammation caused by a bowel obstruction can contribute to generalised discomfort, including in the back.
  • Muscular Strain and Postural Changes: Individuals with bowel obstruction may unconsciously adopt different postures or engage in unusual movements to alleviate abdominal discomfort or pain. These altered postures and movements can strain the back muscles, leading to muscle fatigue and back pain.
  • Complications of Bowel Obstruction: In severe cases, complications arising from bowel obstruction, such as infection or ischemia (reduced blood flow to the intestines), can exacerbate the pain and discomfort. The body’s response to such complications can cause severe pain.
  • Co-existing Conditions: Sometimes, the underlying cause of the bowel obstruction itself can be associated with back pain. For example, conditions like certain cancers (such as colon cancer) or inflammatory diseases can affect various body systems, leading to symptoms in multiple areas, including the back.

Diagnosing Bowel Obstruction

These steps help healthcare professionals determine the presence, location, and cause of the obstruction and the best course of treatment.

  • Abdominal Exam: This procedure checks the abdomen for tenderness, swelling, or masses. Using a stethoscope, the doctor will listen for unusually loud or absent sounds, which may indicate obstruction.
  • Rectal Examination: This can help identify blockages lower in the digestive tract, impacted stool, or other abnormalities.
  • Blood Tests: This procedure is needed to check for signs of infection, dehydration, or electrolyte imbalances, which can accompany bowel obstructions.
  • Urinalysis: Sometimes helpful in ruling out other conditions that can mimic the symptoms of a bowel obstruction.
  • X-rays: Abdominal X-rays can often show if there is an obstruction and where it is located. Signs like air-fluid levels or distended loops of the intestine are indicative.
  • Computed Tomography (CT) Scan: This procedure provides detailed images of the abdomen and can identify the location, cause, and severity of the obstruction, as well as any complications like perforation or ischemia.
  • Ultrasound: Sometimes used, particularly in children or pregnant women, to avoid radiation exposure.
  • Colonoscopy or Sigmoidoscopy: These tests involve a camera to look inside the large intestine. They can help diagnose obstructions caused by tumours, strictures, or other abnormalities.
  • Barium Enema: A special dye provides clearer X-ray images of the large intestine. It’s less commonly used now due to the effectiveness of CT scans.

Managing Back Pain Related To Bowel Obstruction

Back pain associated with bowel obstruction can be managed through several approaches, often concurrently with treating the obstruction itself.

  • Medications: Over-the-counter pain relievers can help, but stronger pain medication may sometimes be necessary. It’s essential to use these as directed by a doctor.
  • Hot or Cold Therapy: Applying heat packs or cold compresses to the lower back can help reduce pain and inflammation.
  • Posture: Maintaining good posture can help reduce back strain.
  • Support Devices: Using lumbar support pillows or mattresses designed to support the back can be beneficial.
  • Physical Therapy: Experienced physical therapists can suggest specific exercises and stretches to strengthen back muscles and improve flexibility, helping to alleviate pain.
  • Gentle Activities: Doing gentle physical activities like walking can help maintain back muscle strength and reduce stiffness.
  • Acupuncture or Massage Therapy: These can relieve some individuals, though it’s important to consult a healthcare provider before pursuing alternative treatments.

Bowel Obstruction Treatments

Bowel obstruction can lead to severe complications like infection, tissue death, and perforation of the intestinal wall, which is why it must be properly treated.

Bowel obstruction treatments are highly individualised, depending on the specific type, location, cause of the obstruction, and the severity of the condition.

The primary objective is to relieve the blockage and prevent any complications. Here’s an expanded look at the various treatment approaches:

  • Nasogastric Tube (NGT) for Decompression: A nasogastric tube is inserted through the nose and passed down into the stomach and sometimes into the small intestine. This procedure helps to relieve pressure by draining the contents from the stomach and intestines.
  • IV Fluids and Electrolytes: To counteract the effects of dehydration and maintain electrolyte balance, IV fluids are administered. These fluids typically include a balance of water, salts, and sometimes glucose. This is especially important because vomiting and lack of fluid intake associated with bowel obstruction can disrupt the body’s normal electrolyte balance.
  • Bowel Rest: Patients with a bowel obstruction are often advised not to eat or drink (NPO – nil per os) for a certain period. This strategy, known as bowel rest, allows the intestines to rest, reducing the chance of further distension and discomfort.
  • Medications: Managing pain is a crucial aspect of treatment, involving various analgesics to provide relief. Additionally, anti-nausea medication is used to manage symptoms of nausea and prevent vomiting, which can exacerbate the condition.
  • Enemas and Laxatives: In cases of partial obstruction or faecal impaction, enemas and laxatives might be effective. They work by softening the stool and stimulating bowel movements to help clear the blockage.
  • Surgical Resection: This is a necessary step in cases of complete obstruction or strangulation of the bowel or when non-resolvable causes like tumours or strictures cause the obstruction. The procedure involves surgically removing the obstructed section of the intestine and reconnecting the two healthy ends.
  • Colostomy or Ileostomy: A temporary or permanent stoma may be necessary in severe cases, especially when a large portion of the intestine is removed or needs time to heal. This involves creating an opening on the abdomen (stoma) to allow waste to exit the body into a colostomy or ileostomy bag.
  • Laparoscopic Surgery: This minimally invasive surgery, involving small incisions and specialised instruments, is often preferred due to its reduced recovery time and lower risk of complications compared to open surgery.

Post-treatment, regular monitoring is essential to ensure the obstruction does not recur and to manage any underlying conditions. Adjustments in diet and lifestyle may also be recommended to prevent future obstructions, especially in cases related to dietary habits or certain gastrointestinal conditions.

Conclusion About Bowel Obstruction And Back Pain

While back pain is not the most direct symptom of bowel obstruction, it can be an associated discomfort due to the underlying digestive system issues. Recognising this potential link is crucial for early diagnosis and treatment.

Anyone experiencing symptoms like changes in bowel habits, persistent back pain, or severe abdominal pain should seek a doctor immediately, especially if constipation remains unaddressed or there are signs of more severe conditions like faecal impaction or cancer.

Ask our expert colorectal specialist, Dr. QM Leong, for early intervention and comprehensive treatment. He has extensive experience in treating and managing bowel issues in Singapore.

Book an appointment today!

Frequently Asked Questions About Bowel Obstruction And Back Pain

How Do You Differentiate Between General Back Pain And Back Pain Due To Bowel Obstruction?

Gastrointestinal symptoms like severe abdominal pain, bloating, and changes in bowel habits often accompany back pain caused by bowel obstruction. General back pain, on the other hand, is usually related to muscle strain, spinal issues, or nerve problems and may not be accompanied by such symptoms.

Does Bowel Obstruction Pain Come And Go?

The pain associated with bowel obstruction can vary. Some people experience constant pain, while others might have pain that comes and goes, often depending on the nature and severity of the obstruction.

Should I See A Doctor If I Suspect A Bowel Obstruction?

Yes, it’s crucial to seek medical attention immediately if you suspect a bowel obstruction, as it is a serious condition that can result in life-threatening complications if not treated promptly.

How Long Can You Have A Bowel Obstruction Before It Becomes Dangerous?

The severity and danger of a bowel obstruction can escalate quickly, sometimes within a matter of days. It’s important to seek medical attention immediately if you suspect an obstruction, as delays can increase the risk of serious complications.