Short Bowel Syndrome

What is short bowel syndrome?

Short bowel syndrome (SBS), or simply “short gut,” is a rare condition caused by the loss of a functioning small intestine. The small intestine is an important part of the digestive tract — it’s where we absorb most of the sugars, proteins and fats from the food we eat. When a child doesn’t have enough small intestine, the body can’t extract the nutrients it needs to grow and thrive. SBS is a serious condition because if left untreated, it can lead to dehydration and malnutrition.

The normal small intestine varies in length between 10 and 28 feet and is divided into three main sections:

  • duodenum: a relatively short section of the small intestine, measuring about 10 to 12 inches that links the stomach to the rest of the small intestine
  • jejunum: the largest section, because its many folds give it an increased surface area for absorbing nutrients
  • ileum: the longest section, accounting for around 3/5 of the small bowel

Usually, about half of the small intestine can be removed without causing significant problems, especially if the ileum is not involved. The extent of your child’s problems with SBS usually depends on which sections and how much of the small intestine are affected. Removal of the ileum can cause problems, since it’s responsible for the absorption of fats, bile salts and vitamin B12. Children can often tolerate removal of parts of the jejunum, since the ileum can compensate for some of the work the jejunum would do.

Meet Konrad

How we care for short bowel syndrome

The Center for Advanced Intestinal Rehabilitation (CAIR) Boston Children’s Hospital is one of the world’s premier programs for the treatment of SBS. Each year, our program cares for more than 200 children from all regions of the country and abroad. In 2002, our doctors performed the world's first serial transverse enteroplasty procedure (STEP), a surgical technique that lengthens the bowels of children with SBS. Since then, we have performed dozens of these procedures with increasing success.