Short bowel syndrome

Short bowel syndrome occurs when part of the small intestine is missing, either at birth or after surgery. The syndrome keeps you from absorbing needed nutrients.

Short bowel syndrome is a condition in which your body is unable to absorb enough nutrients from the foods you eat because you don't have enough small intestine.

The small intestine is where the majority of the nutrients you eat are absorbed into your body during digestion.

Short bowel syndrome can occur when:

  • Portions of the small intestine have been surgically removed. Conditions that may require surgical removal of large portions of the small intestine include Crohn's disease, cancer, traumatic injuries and blood clots in the arteries that provide blood to the intestines.
  • Portions of the small intestine are missing or damaged at birth. Babies may be born with a short small intestine or with a damaged small intestine that must be surgically removed.

Short bowel syndrome treatment typically involves special diets and nutritional supplements and may require nutrition through a vein (parenteral nutrition) to prevent malnutrition.

Common signs and symptoms of short bowel syndrome may include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Greasy, foul-smelling stools
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Malnutrition
  • Swelling (edema) in the lower extremities

Causes of short bowel syndrome include having parts of your small intestine removed during surgery, or being born with some of the small intestine missing or damaged. Conditions that may require surgical removal of portions of the small intestine include Crohn's disease, cancer, injuries and blood clots.

To diagnose short bowel syndrome, your doctor may recommend blood or stool tests to measure nutrient levels. Other tests may include imaging procedures, such as an X-ray with a contrast material (barium X-ray), computerized tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and CT or MR enterography, that can show obstructions or changes to the intestines.

Your treatment options for short bowel syndrome will depend on what parts of your small intestine are affected, whether your colon is intact and your own preferences.

Short bowel syndrome treatment may include:

  • Nutritional therapy. People with small bowel syndrome will need to follow a special diet and take nutritional supplements. Some people may need to get nutrition through a vein (parenteral nutrition) or a feeding tube (enteral nutrition) to prevent malnutrition.
  • Medications. In addition to nutritional support, your doctor may recommend drugs to help manage short bowel syndrome, such as medications to help control stomach acid, reduce diarrhea or improve intestinal absorption after surgery.
  • Surgery. Doctors may recommend surgery for children and adults with short bowel syndrome. Types of surgery include procedures to slow the passage of nutrients through the intestine or a procedure to lengthen the intestine (autologous gastrointestinal reconstruction), as well as small bowel transplantation (SBT).

Last Updated:

March 24th, 2021

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