The Difference Between Constipation and a Bowel Obstruction

Constipation and bowel obstruction are conditions that both result in the body’s waste being difficult or unable to pass, as the digestive function. Either the regular rhythmic contractions that push the waste along the intestinal tract have become disrupted, or there is something blocking the way. 

Constipation is when the body has trouble moving waste along. This is typically caused by not enough fluids, too much fibre, or a condition like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) or Crohn’s Disease.

Obstruction is something physically in the way that prevents the waste from moving any further. This could be a build-up of scar tissue, abnormal growths or hernias, or even a twist in the intestines. 

So, how can you tell the difference? While both involve bloating and discomfort, an obstruction is more intense and comes on quicker. This typically happens following surgery, and you can experience:

  • Sharp abdominal pain.
  • Swelling and bloating.
  • Inability to pass gas or a bowel movement.
  • Nausea and or vomiting.

People often consider constipation as an obstruction, but constipation does result in infrequent bowel movements.

There are many ways to treat an obstruction, depending on the cause and severity. The recovery time can also vary and can range from a few days to up to 6 weeks if you require surgery.

What are the causes and types of bowel obstructions?

There are several things that can cause a bowel obstruction, and people who have recently had any kind of abdominal surgery (including cesarean section) are at a higher risk.

Scar Tissue Build-Up

Following any kind of surgery, there is a certain amount of scar tissue that occurs. Sometimes, an excess of build-up can cause sections of the intestines to compress.

Foreign Objects

“Pica” is a psychological condition that compels a person to swallow non-nutritive objects. These can cause blockages that require surgery to fix.


Hernias are a rupture in the muscular walls in the abdomen area. In the wrong place, they can create blockages by reducing the space in the abdominal cavity and closing off the tract.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

This is a condition that affects the lining of the digestive tract, thus causing inflammation. This reduces the space inside the intestines, as well as disrupting the natural rhythmic contractions that pass waste along.


This is where a section of the track slides into another. Though this may not result in a complete blockage, it will narrow that section, thus making it very difficult for solid matter to pass.


These are large growths that can block off sections and require surgery to be removed. Depending on the type of tumour, additional treatment may be required after.

Twisted bowels

This is where your intestines become twisted around themselves. It is more commonly seen following surgery and may need further surgery to correct. This condition needs to be treated urgently as the longer it is left as is, the more complications can occur.

How is a bowel obstruction treated?

There are many ways to treat bowel obstructions. Depending on the type and severity, it could be done with medication, minor outpatient procedures, or even surgery. Here are some ‌options:


Antibiotics, opioids, and anti-emetics, for example, are some common medications used to treat the symptoms of obstruction in order to provide relief until you are able to have treatment.


Depending on the location of the blockage, an enema may be used to help remove the material. An enema is a mixture of water/fluid and a lubricant. They then pass this mixture into the colon via the rectum with a rubber-tipped syringe to flush out the blockage.

Stool Softeners

These are over-the-counter medications that come in different forms. They work with the body to soften the stool and make it easier for the blockage to pass. Typically used in the treatment of constipation, your doctor may also recommend that stool softeners are used for a blockage if it is not too severe.


There are several different types of surgical options, which your doctor will discuss. The right one for you depends on the type and location of the blockage.

How to Treat Constipation

The symptoms of constipation are similar to that of obstruction but do not come on as quickly. These symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain.
  • Bloating, or not feeling “empty” after a bowel movement.
  • Difficulty in passing bowel movements (sometimes as few as twice a week).
  • Nausea.
  • Reduced energy.

Constipation can be treated at home, either with a change in diet and increase in water intake, over-the-counter medications such as stool softeners, or even some herbal remedies. 

Herbal teas are very good at helping to relieve constipation. The warmth of the tea relaxed the intestines, allowing for their natural rhythm to return. The additional water helps to soften the stool and provides more lubrication to aid in the movement. Certain herbs work better and provide inflammation relief to the intestines at the same time.  

Natural supplements such as psyllium aid in providing natural fibre to your diet, which in turn helps to keep the stools soft and formed, allowing them to pass naturally and without difficulty.

How do you keep your bowels healthy and happy?

Ultimately, diet, drinking lots of water, and exercise are always the best ways to keep your body healthy. These methods also help to prevent constipation and blockages.

Should you experience any form of pain or difficulty in passing stools, and more importantly, should this happen following any kind of abdominal surgery, then it is important to contact your doctor as soon as possible.

If you are experiencing a bowel obstruction, every second counts. Leaving it untreated for too long can result in additional health issues, some of which are more severe than others.

Essentially, it is good to remember that there are many things that can cause a bowel obstruction. While bowel obstruction and constipation have similar symptoms, the former needs more invasive treatment, whereas constipation can be easily treated at home.

Author Bio: Erin Gregory is a blogger in Toronto. She is currently working as a Community Manager for several small businesses. She has graduated with honors from the University of British Columbia with a dual degree in Business Administration and Creative Writing.


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