Understanding Short Bowel Syndrome

Short bowel syndrome refers to a group of problems associated with the poor absorption of nutrients that usually occurs in people who have had half or more of their small intestine surgically removed. Patients are usually considered to have short bowel syndrome when less than 100 to 150 centimeters-three to five feet-of functioning bowel remains following surgery, less than one-quarter of normal.

The intestine is made up of a muscular tube that extends from the lower end of the stomach to the anus, it is also called the bowel or bowels. Food passes through the intestine, which is divided into two sections: the small intestine and the large intestine. Because the small intestine is where most of the digestion process and absorption of nutrients takes place, when part of the small intestine is removed, not enough water, vitamins and other nutrients from food can be absorbed. The result can be diarrhea, the main symptom of short bowel syndrome, which if severe enough can lead to dehydration, malnutrition and weight loss and even death if not properly treated. Other symptoms to watch out for include cramping, bloating, heartburn and weakness and fatigue.

Causes of Short Bowel Syndrome

Removal of half or more of the small intestine may become necessary for a variety of reasons, including when there is intestinal disease, injury or a defect to the small intestine at birth. In children and adults, short bowel syndrome may occur following surgery to treat medical conditions such as Crohn's disease, bowel injury from trauma, or damage to the bowel caused by cancer and cancer treatment.

Treating Short Bowel Syndrome

To stabilize the metabolic systems of patients with short bowel syndrome, nutritional support is usually given either parenteral, which provides electrolytes and liquid nutrients into the bloodstream intravenously (a tube in the vein), or enteral, liquid food delivered to the stomach or small intestine through a feeding tube. Treatment may also involve oral rehydration solutions consisting of sugar and salt liquids.

For mild short bowel syndrome, treatment may consist of eating small, frequent meals, taking fluid and nutritional supplements and using medication to treat diarrhea.

The long-term treatment and recovery of short bowel syndrome largely depends on how much of the small intestine was removed and how well the remaining section of the small intestine adapts and functions over time. Research is currently underway to study ways to help the small intestine function better following surgery.


Sources: digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/shortbowel