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Short Bowel Syndrome

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jul 4, 2022.

What is short bowel syndrome?

Short bowel syndrome is a condition that prevents your intestines from absorbing nutrients. Short bowel syndrome occurs when the intestine is shorter than normal or does not work the way it should.

What causes short bowel syndrome?

You may have been born with a short bowel. Causes include tumors, radiation, infections, surgery to remove part of the intestine, and conditions such as Celiac disease.

What are the signs and symptoms of short bowel syndrome?

Diarrhea is the most common symptom of short bowel syndrome. You may also have any of the following:

  • Abdominal cramps
  • Bloated abdomen
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Rash around your rectum

How is short bowel syndrome diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your medical history and examine you. You may need any of the following tests:

  • Blood tests: These give healthcare providers information about how your body is working.
  • Bowel movement or urine sample: A sample of your bowel movement or urine is sent to a lab for tests. The test may show what germ is causing your illness.
  • Breath test: You breathe into a machine and it measures how well you absorb carbohydrates (sugars). This helps your healthcare provider know if you have an infection in your intestines.
  • Abdominal x-rays: Healthcare providers use these pictures of the organs inside your abdomen to find problems such as blocked, shortened, or enlarged intestines.
  • Barium enema: A barium enema is an x-ray of the colon. A tube is put into your anus, and a liquid called barium is put through the tube. Barium is used so that healthcare providers can see your colon better on the x-ray film.
  • Colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy: During both procedures, a tube with a light on the end will be put into your anus, and then moved forward into your intestine. A sigmoidoscopy looks at the lower part of your intestine. A colonoscopy looks at your entire intestine.

How is short bowel syndrome treated?

  • Medicines:
    • Antibiotics: This medicine helps treat or prevent an infection caused by bacteria.
    • Diarrhea medicine: This medicine is given to decrease the amount of diarrhea you are having. Some of these medicines coat the intestine and make the bowel movements less watery. Other antidiarrheal medicine works by slowing down how fast the intestine move food through.
    • Antacids: These help decrease stomach acid.
    • NSAIDs , such as ibuprofen, help decrease swelling, pain, and fever. This medicine is available with or without a doctor's order. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If you take blood thinner medicine, always ask your healthcare provider if NSAIDs are safe for you. Always read the medicine label and follow directions.
    • Nutritional supplements: You may need vitamin and mineral supplements because your intestines cannot absorb these nutrients from food.
  • Surgery: You may need surgery if your intestines become blocked or your bowel is very short. Healthcare providers will lengthen your bowel or remove the blockage. You may need a bowel transplant.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

What are the risks of short bowel syndrome?

  • You may need long-term total parenteral nutrition (TPN). This is food in liquid form and is usually given through an IV. TPN can cause liver problems, gallbladder or kidney stones, or bone diseases. If you have surgery, you may bleed, get an infection, or your signs and symptoms can get worse.
  • Without treatment, you may become malnourished and dehydrated. Your remaining bowel will not absorb enough water and nutrients from food. This can cause you to pass out or have seizures. Your kidneys and other organs may not work properly, and this may lead to death. Ask your healthcare provider if you have questions about these and other risks of short bowel syndrome.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have a fever.
  • You feel achy, or have chills, weakness, or a cough.
  • Your abdominal pain does not go away, even after treatment.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care or call 911?

  • You have severe abdominal pain.
  • Your bowel movements are dark or have blood in them.
  • You feel like you are going to pass out.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.