Short Bowel Syndrome | Digestive Health Program | Loyola Medicine

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Short Bowel Syndrome

Overview and Facts about Short Bowel Syndrome

In short bowel syndrome, your small intestine is shorter than normal. Most adults have about 20 feet of small intestine, but if you have short bowel syndrome, you might have less than half of this length. This prevents you from absorbing enough nutrients from your food, leading to malnutrition. While short bowel syndrome can hinder your digestive health, most sufferers lead perfectly active lives with treatment.

Symptoms and Signs of Short Bowel Syndrome

If you have short bowel syndrome, most of the symptoms involve your digestive health. Common problems include:

  • Anemia
  • Cramping, bloating or gas
  • Dehydration
  • Diarrhea
  • Heartburn
  • Stools that are pale and greasy
  • Swelling of the legs, also known as edema
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Weight loss

Causes and Risk Factors of Short Bowel Syndrome

Most people have short bowel syndrome because they’ve had a surgery to remove part of their small intestine. Such surgery might be required because of Crohn's disease, cancer or an injury or trauma to the intestine.

Otherwise, some people can be born with a shorter intestine. This is a common problem in babies born too early, as part of their intestine may die.

Tests and Diagnosis of Short Bowel Syndrome

If you’ve had a surgery to remove part of your small intestine, your doctor will immediately assume that short bowel syndrome is the issue if you develop symptoms. To confirm the diagnosis, they might perform the following tests:

  • Blood chemistry tests to look at your albumin level
  • Complete blood count test
  • Fecal fat test
  • Vitamin level blood test
  • X-ray, ultrasound or CT scan of your small intestine to look for issues

Treatment and Care for Short Bowel Syndrome

Unfortunately, the only cure for short bowel syndrome is a small intestine transplant, which is often not feasible for many people. However, there are several steps you can take to relieve your symptoms and improve your nutrient absorption.

The most important step is altering your diet. You’ll want to eat a high-calorie diet that’s rich in folic acid, iron and vitamin B12. Your doctor will also recommend you eat a balanced portion of protein, fats and carbohydrates.

If diet alone isn’t working, you might receive vitamin injections. There are also certain medicines that can slow down digestion, allowing your small intestine to absorb more nutrients. For serious cases, you might require IV nutrition to get the calories, vitamins and minerals you need to stay healthy.