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Computerized Tomography for Small Bowel Obstruction

Three Part Question

In an [adult patient presenting with suspected SBO] is [CT] useful in [diagnosis of obstruction and strangulation].

Clinical Scenario

A 65-year-old woman presents to the emergency department with signs and symptoms of SBO. She had previously had an abdominal hysterectomy. Plain abdominal radiograph (AXR) is non-specific. You wonder whether abdominal CT would be useful in the management of a patient with presumptive SBO.

Search Strategy

Medline 1950 to March 2006 using the OVID interface, combined with a manual search of references in papers found.
(exp Intestinal obstruction/AND exp Intestine, Small/AND exp Tomography, X-Ray Computed/) AND ((intestinal adj obstruction) AND CT).mp. limit to (humans and English language).

Search Outcome

A total of 491 papers were found of which 16 were relevant to the topic and one systematic review incorporating 11 of these papers

Relevant Paper(s)

Author, date and country Patient group Study type (level of evidence) Outcomes Key results Study Weaknesses
Ha et al.
South Korea
84 patients with previous laparotomy presenting with small bowel obstruction (SBO) (41 strangulated) undergoing computed tomography (CT) (intravenous (iv) contrast). Malignant/inflammatory obstruction excludedCase seriesCT diagnosis of strangulationSensitivity 85%Retrospective case series
Suri et al.
32 patients presenting with clinical suspicion of intestinal obstruction undergoing AXR, US and CT.Cohort studyCT diagnosis of, level of and cause of SBODiagnosis: sensitivity 93%, specificity 100%, accuracy 94%.Level: sensitivity 93%.Cause: sensitivity 70%Small numbers
Beall et al.
44 patients with suspected bowel obstruction (28 obstructed) undergoing CTCohort studyCT diagnosis of SBOAccuracy 71%, sensitivity 71%; specificity 71%; positive predictive value (PPV) 83% (n = 21)Small numbers.
Lazarus et al.
34 patients with CT findings of small bowel obstruction.Prospective.Presence of small bowel faeces sign (SBFS). Severity of obstruction. Localisation of obstruction.SBFS present in 55.9%. Present in 16.6% patients with mild obstruction, 72.7% patients with moderate obstruction and 58.8% patients with high grade obstruction. In 94.7% with SBFS level of obstruction foundSmall numbers.
Scaglione et al.
120 cases of closed loop SBO who had undergone laparotomy within 6 h of CT (iv contrast) and plain abdominal x ray (AXR).Retrospective analysisDiagnosis of closed loop SBO and diagnosis of infarctionCT diagnosed closed loop obstruction in 78%. PPV for CT diagnosis of strangulation 100%, negative predictive value (NPV) 73%Retrospective analysis.
Mallo et al,
11 studies reporting on diagnosis of ischaemia in SBO (743 patients).7 studies reporting on complete/high grade obstruction (408 patients)Systematic reviewAggregated PPV, NPV, sensitivity and specificity for CT diagnosis of obstruction and infarctionFor bowel ischaemia: PPV 79%, NPV 93%, sensitivity 83%, specificity 92%.For bowel obstruction: PPV 92%, NPV 93%, sensitivity 92%, specificity 94%


Published literature supports the use of CT as a sensitive and specific test for small bowel obstruction. The evidence supports the proposal that CT provides reliable information regarding cause of the obstruction and presence of bowel strangulation.

Clinical Bottom Line

CT is a useful investigation in patients presenting with suspected SBO.


  1. Ha HK, Kim JS, Lee MS, Lee HJ, Jeong YK, Kim PN, Lee MG, Kim KW, Kim MY, & Auh YH Differentiation of simple and strangulated small-bowel obstructions: usefulness of known CT criteria. Radiology 1997; 204, 507-512
  2. Suri S, Gupta S, Sudhakar PJ, Venkataramu NK, Sood B, & Wig JD Comparative evaluation of plain films, ultrasound and CT in the diagnosis of intestinal obstruction. Acta Radiol 1999; 40, 422-428.
  3. Beall DP, Fortman BJ, Lawler BC, & Regan F Imaging bowel obstruction: a comparison between fast magnetic resonance imaging and helical computed tomography. Clin Radiol 2002; 57, 719-724.
  4. Lazarus DE, Slywotsky C, Bennett GL, Megibow AJ, & Macari M Frequency and relevance of the AJR Am J Roentgenol 2004; 183, 136
  5. Scaglione M, Grassi R, Pinto A, Giovine S, Gagliardi N, Stavolo C, & Romano L Positive predictive value and negative predictive value of spiral CT in the diagnosis of closed loop obstruction Radiol Med (Torino) 2004; 107, 69-77.
  6. Mallo RD, Salem L, Lalani T, et al. Computed tomography diagnosis of ischemia and complete obstruction in small bowel obstruction: a systematic review. J Gastrointest Surg 2005;9:690–4.