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Short Bowel Syndrome

Reviewed by: Abigail E. Martin, MD
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What Is Short Bowel Syndrome?

Short bowel syndrome happens when the small bowel (intestine) is too short. It can't fully absorb enough of the nutrients that kids need to grow, like water, protein, fat, and sugar. Food that isn’t fully absorbed stays in the intestine and can cause diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration, malnourishment, and other problems.

Children with short bowel syndrome often need to get  to help them grow. This is nutrition given through a special IV into a vein.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Short Bowel Syndrome?

The most common symptoms of short bowel syndrome are:

  • bloating, gas, and belly pain
  • diarrhea and foul-smelling poop
  • weight loss
  • poor growth
  • vitamin and mineral deficiencies

What Causes Short Bowel Syndrome?

Short bowel syndrome can happen when a child's intestine is injured and doctors remove part of it in surgery.

Diseases and conditions that can injure the intestine this way include:

How Is Short Bowel Syndrome Diagnosed?

Usually short bowel develops because of an emergency while a baby or child is in the hospital. Your doctor will talk with you about the diagnosis and treatment plan before sending your child home.

Children with short bowel syndrome will need regular follow-up medical care. During these visits, the doctor will ask questions, take a medical history, and do an exam.

The doctor might also order blood tests and imaging tests (X-rays or computerized tomography (CT).

How Is Short Bowel Syndrome Treated?

Treatment for short bowel syndrome depends on how severe the condition is. It will be different for every child, and could involve a combination of:

  • getting parenteral nutrition
  • eating a healthy diet, which may include avoiding some foods
  • getting food or formula through a feeding tube
  • taking medicines to help treat diarrhea
  • taking nutritional supplements
  • working with therapists
  • surgeries to help the intestines work better
  • referral to a medical center that does intestinal transplants

A specialized team cares for children with short bowel syndrome. Usually the team includes:

  • a doctor who specializes in digestive problems, called a pediatric gastroenterologist
  • a pediatric surgeon for any needed surgical procedures
  • a dietitian to help monitor the child’s growth and help provide nutrition
  • a social worker to help the family get the support they need
  • a speech therapist to help with feeding problems
  • other specialists as needed

How Can Parents Help?

Be sure to take your child to all regular checkups. The doctor will talk with you about many things, including your child’s growth, diet, and overall development.

Reviewed by: Abigail E. Martin, MD
Date reviewed: December 2020