Short Bowel Syndrome or Short Gut Syndrome

Short Bowel Syndrome (SBS) also known as short gut syndrome is a rare condition affecting about 3 in every million people. In a recent talkhealth survey conducted to understand how knowledgeable the public are bout SBS, 80% of people asked had never heard of the condition before.

If you have undergone a surgery to remove part of your bowel, if your bowel isn’t working as it should or if you were born with less than the normal amount of functioning bowel you may have a condition called Short Bowel Syndrome (SBS) also known as Short Gut Syndrome (SGS). As a result of this your body does not absorb nutrients normally.

The condition can be caused by:

  • A congenital abnormality - a birth defect which you are born with
  • Part of the bowel tissue dies (necrotising enterocolitis)
  • Your bowels have twisted
  • You have had surgery to remove a large section of your bowel - for reasons such as Crohn’s disease and bowel cancer

One of the main symptoms of SBS is loose watery diarrhoea. You may also experience cramping, wind, heartburn, weakness and fatigue (tiredness). If your baby is born with SBS you may find that he/she does not absorb milk properly and does not grow normally. 

Diagnosing short bowel syndrome

Your doctor may be able to diagnose SBS if your medical history suggests you are likely to be at risk of developing the condition. For example, if you have had part or all of your bowel removed your doctor will know this by looking at your medical history.

There are tests which may be performed if a diagnosis is unclear, for example babies who are born with symptoms which may indicate SBS. Your doctor may begin by giving you a physical examination - he/she will check your general appearance, ask about your symptoms and general health and any family or medical history which should be considered. He may also refer you for blood and stool tests.

Further testing can include:

  • X-rays (a fast and painless procedure which produces a 2D image of the inside of you and your chest and abdomen (tummy).
  • A CT-scan (a computerised tomography scan which produces a 2D image of your abdomen)
  • Barium upper GI X-rays - a test which uses a barium contrast material, fluoroscopy and X-ray to show your doctor the movement of fluid through your throat, stomach and small intestine.

Treating small bowel syndrome

Treatment of small bowel syndrome will depend on the severity of your condition (how much working bowel you have, how severe your symptoms are).

For most people treatment is focused on easing symptoms and ensuring you are getting enough vitamins and minerals to support you day to day.

For mild cases of short bowel syndrome you may need to consider your diet, frequency of meals and fluid intake (perhaps taking on extra fluids especially if you are having frequent bouts of diarrhoea). Your doctor may also give you medication to help control your diarrhoea. If your symptoms are moderate and frequent bouts of diarrhoea are leaving you dehydrated you may need to have extra fluids and minerals given to you through an Intravenous Drip (IV).

Severe cases of SBS may require a feeding tube be placed directly into your stomach instead of eating meals. Total parenteral nutrition (TPN) may also be considered. This is particularly useful for children and babies to ensure they are getting the right nutrition. TPN is a special formula which is administered through a vein in your body. Speak to your doctor for advice relating directly to you or your children’s treatment of SBS.

In some cases surgery may be considered as an option. Part or full bowel transplants can take place and should be discussed with your doctor on an individual basis.


Your outlook will depend very much on the severity of your condition. You should keep in regular contact with your healthcare team and ensure you ask them questions about your care and options to ensure you are receiving the best form of treatment for you.

Sources used in the writing of this article are available upon request

Information contained in this Articles page has been written by talkhealth based on available medical evidence. Our evidence based articles are accredited by the PIF TICK, the only UK quality mark for trustworthy health information. The content however should never be considered a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek medical advice before changing your treatment routine. talkhealth does not endorse any specific products, brands or treatments.

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Information written by the talkhealth team

Last revised: 17 February 2017
Next review: 17 February 2020