Duodenal obstruction is a failure of food to pass out of the stomach either from a complete or partial obstruction.
The duodenum is the first part of the intestine, into which the stomach, the gall bladder, and the pancreas empty their contents. The pylorus connects the duodenum with the stomach and contains the valve that regulates stomach emptying. Obstruction usually occurs right at this outlet, so that the gall bladder and pancreas are unable to drain their secretions without hindrance.
Causes and symptoms
Obstruction of the duodenum occurs in adults and infants, each for a different set of reasons. In adults, the usual cause is a peptic ulcer of such antiquity that repeated cycles of injury and scarring have narrowed the passageway. Medical treatment of ulcers has progressed to the point where such obstinate ulcer disease is rarely seen any more. In infants, the conditions are congenital—either the channel is underdeveloped or the pylorus is overdeveloped. The first type is called duodenal hypoplasia and the second is termed hypertrophic pyloric stenosis. In rare cases, the channel may be missing altogether, a condition called duodenal atresia. To say that these anomalies are congenital is not to say their cause is understood. As with most birth defects, the specific cause is not known.
Food that cannot exit the stomach in the forward direction will return whence it came. Vomiting is the constant symptom of duodenal obstruction. It may be preceded by indigestion and nausea as the stomach attempts to squeeze its contents through an ever narrowing outlet.
Hypertrophic pyloric stenosis appears soon after birth. The infant will vomit feedings, lose weight, and be restless and irritable.
X rays taken with contrast material in the stomach readily demonstrate the site of the blockage and often the ulcer that caused it. Gastroscopy is another way to evaluate the problem. In infants, x rays may not be necessary to detect pyloric stenosis. It is often possible to feel the enlarged pylorus, like an olive, deep under the ribs and see the stomach rippling as it labors to force food through.
Bowel obstruction requires a surgeon, sometimes immediately. Newer surgical techniques constantly improve the outcome, but obstruction is a mechanical problem that needs a mechanical solution. Most adults who come to surgery for obstruction have suffered for years from peptic ulcer disease. They will usually benefit from ulcer surgery at the same time their obstruction is relieved. The surgeon will therefore select a procedure that combines relief of obstruction with remedy for ulcer disease. There are many choices. In fact, even without obstruction, functional considerations require ulcer surgery to include enhancement of stomach emptying.
To treat an infant with hypertrophic pyloric stenosis, some surgeons have had success with forceful balloon dilation of the pylorus done through a gastroscope, but the standard procedure is to cut across the overdeveloped circular muscle that is constricting the stomach outlet. There are reports of infant hypertrophic pyloric stenosis remitting without surgery following a very careful feeding schedule, but mortality is unacceptably high.
A functioning and unrestricted intestine is a prerequisite for living independent of the most advanced and continuous medical care available. Achieving this desirable goal is the rule with surgery for duodenal obstructions of all types. The bowel is so malleable that there is a rearrangement to suit every occasion. The variety of possible configurations is limited only by the surgeon's imagination.
Prompt and effective treatment of peptic ulcers will prevent chronic scarring and narrowing. Drugs developed over the past few decades have all but eliminated the need for ulcer surgery.
Atresia — Failure to develop; complete absence.
Contrast agent — A substance that produces shadows on an x ray so that hollow structures can be more easily seen.
Gastroscopy — Looking into the stomach with a flexible viewing instrument called a gastroscope.
Hypoplasia — Incomplete development.
Peptic ulcer — A wound in the lower stomach and duodenum caused by stomach acid and a newly discovered germ called Helicobacter pylori.
Redel, Carol A., and R. Jeff Zeiwner. "Anatomy and Anomalies of the Stomach and Duodenum." In Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease, edited by Mark Feldman, et al. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Co., 1997.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.