Short gut syndrome, also known as short bowel syndrome, occurs when the body does not properly absorb and digest food normally because a large length of the small intestine is missing or non-functional. This can be due to a birth defect or surgical removal.

People with short gut syndrome cannot absorb enough water, vitamins, and other nutrients from food to thrive and grow. The major causes of short gut syndrome in children include necrotizing enterocolitis, intestinal atresias, and gastroschisis. In adults, the most common causes are trauma, radiation injury, or Crohns disease.

Short gut syndrome’s main cause is surgical removal of half or more of the small intestine (also called the small bowel) to treat intestinal diseases, injuries or birth defects. In newborns, for example, short gut syndrome may occur following surgery to treat necrotizing enterocolitis, where the bowel suddenly dies. In order to save the baby’s life, a large length of intestine has to be removed, resulting in inadequate length. Consequently, nourishment must be provided directly into a vein via an IV or tube feeding.

Symptoms include diarrhea, fatigue, dehydration, malnutrition and weight loss. These problems can be severe and can cause death without proper treatment.

Intestinal transplantation may be an option for some patients for whom other treatments have failed and who have complications from long-term parenteral nutrition. These complications include blood infections, blood clots, and liver failure, which can lead to the need for liver transplantation.

Less severe cases can be treated with nutritional support and medications. Various surgical procedures can be performed to lengthen the intestine and take away the need for nutrition by vein.

Researchers at Washington University and St. Louis Children’s Hospital are studying ways to help the small bowel that remains after surgery adapt and function better.

To request an appointment with a physician at St. Louis Children's Hospital, call 314.454.5437 or 800.678.5437 or email us.