What is Short Bowel Syndrome?

Short bowel syndrome: also referred to as, short gut syndrome/short bowel state, or simply or SBS. A disorder clinically defined by poor absorption of food causing acute diarrhoea and malnutrition. Simply this means where a significant amount of bowel (half or more of the small intestine) is lost, removed, or unable to function inside the body and medical intervention is required in order for the child to survive.

What causes short bowel syndrome?

The most common causes of short bowel syndrome in infants is as follows:

  • Necrotising enterocolitis (NEC) – an infection or inflammation (swelling) of the intestine of premature babies that can lead to the dying (necrosis) of the intestinal tract.

  • Gastroschisis – congenital (before birth) defect where a hole develops in the abdominal (stomach area) wall causing some of the bowel to escape through the hole and continue to develop on the outside of the baby’s abdomen.

  • Malrotation – a congenital (before birth) abnormality of the bowel.

  • Volvulus – a complication of malrotation where the bowel twists and the blood supply to the bowel is cut off.

  • Intestinal atresia’s – malformation where there is a narrowing or absence of a portion of the intestine

  • Bowel injury – from trauma


All these causes make digestion and absorption of food unable to take place and the body cannot obtain the essential nutrients to stay healthy without artificial drip feeding(see TPN and Nutrition). Not all patients who lose significant amounts of gut develop short-bowel syndrome.

Other factors that determine if a patient will be affected are:

  • The length of the bowel before any disease or complication started. 

  • The part of the bowel that is lost. We have small and large bowel – the small bowel is divided into 3 parts – duodenum, jejunum and ileum and the large bowel into 2 parts – the colon (ascending-transverse-descending-sigmoid) and rectum.

  • The age of the patient at the time of bowel loss.

  • The remaining length of  bowel left after any operation.

  • Whether or not a connection still remains between the small and large bowel which is called the ileo-caecal valve.