An ileus is usually not a severe condition, but it can be very uncomfortable. In most cases, time and TLC will resolve your ileus and lessen your symptoms, but in severe cases you need immediate medical attention.

An ileus is a condition in which the small intestine doesn’t work normally. Normally, the muscles of the small intestines squeeze to move air, fluid, and food through it. But in an ileus, the small intestine is not able to move the air, fluid and food along, due to the muscles not working properly and the intestines being slow. This causes the air and food to get backed up in the digestive tract, which causes abdominal distension, or bloating, and abdominal pain.

An ileus can happen in children and adults.

Causes of an ileus

Different things can cause an ileus, including:

  • Surgery - Especially abdominal surgery, for any reason; surgery is the most common cause of ileus. This is due to manipulation of the intestines and exposure to the open air. This causes the intestines to go to sleep for up to several days after surgery.
  • Infections - Infections of the intestine or inside of the abdomen.
  • Injury - An injury to the abdomen, or blood within the abdominal cavity like you would experience in a trauma situation.
  • Medications - Certain medicines, such as strong pain medicines (narcotics such as Vicodin, percocet, etc.) and other medications such as antidepressants or other psychiatric medications can cause the intestines to slow down.
  • Blood flow - Not enough blood flow to the intestines.
  • Other - Conditions that affect the body’s muscles and nerves

Symptoms of an ileus

The most common symptoms are:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal swelling and bloating (called abdominal distension)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Not being able to have a bowel movement or pass gas

These symptoms can lasts several days, depending on the cause for the ileus.

Testing for an ileus

Your doctor or nurse will ask about your symptoms and do an examination. To find out what’s causing your ileus, he or she will probably do blood tests and imaging tests. The imaging tests can include an X-ray, CT scan, or a series of X-rays called a “GI series.” For the CT scan and GI series, you may need to drink a liquid called “contrast” beforehand. The contrast will show up in your intestines on the CT scan or X-rays, and will give the doctors a more accurate picture of your digestive tract, to help determine what is causing the ileus.

Treatment for an ileus

Treatment depends on your symptoms and what’s causing your ileus. All people with an ileus are treated in the hospital.

To treat your symptoms and help you feel better, your doctor may do one or more of the following:

  • Give you fluids and nutrition through an IV (a small tube that goes into your vein), this will prevent you from becoming dehydrated
  • Put a thin tube called a “nasogastric tube” in your nose, down your esophagus, and into your stomach – The tube can suck up the fluid and air in your stomach, which will help to decompress the bowel. This will make your stomach feel better and help keep you from vomiting.

If recent surgery caused your ileus, you might not need any other treatment. That’s because an ileus that happens after surgery usually gets better on its own in a few days. Unfortunately, there is really no good way to get rid of an ileus after surgery, it just takes time. The body decides how much time it takes, and there are not really any treatment methods to speed up the time it takes to resolve. Getting up out of bed and walking around several times per day can help to get your bowel function back to normal after surgery.

If a medication has caused your ileus, your doctor will likely stop that medicine. He or she will also treat any other condition causing your ileus, if the condition can be treated.

People with an ileus do not usually need surgery. Usually it will get better on its own once the cause for the ileus has been resolved; but they might need surgery if their condition is severe.

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