Definition & Facts for Short Bowel Syndrome

In this section:

What is short bowel syndrome?

Short bowel syndrome is a condition that develops when the small intestine, also called the small bowel, is shortened or damaged and cannot absorb enough nutrients from the foods you eat to maintain health. The small intestine is where most of the nutrients you get from foods are absorbed by your body during digestion. Short bowel syndrome may be mild, moderate, or severe, depending on how well the small intestine is working.

How common is short bowel syndrome?

Experts aren’t sure how many people have short bowel syndrome. Chronic, or long-lasting, short bowel syndrome is rare because, in most cases, the intestines are able to heal and adapt.

Who is more likely to have short bowel syndrome?

Short bowel syndrome is more likely to affect people who

  • have had surgery to remove part of their small intestine, called a small bowel resection
  • were born with a small intestine that is not as long as normal
  • have a diseased or damaged small intestine that can’t absorb enough nutrients
A doctor talking with a young patient and caregiver.Short bowel syndrome most often occurs in people who had a small bowel resection.

What are the complications of short bowel syndrome?

Short bowel syndrome and long-term treatment with parenteral nutrition may lead to complications.

Nutrition complications

In people with short bowel syndrome, the small intestine can’t absorb enough water, vitamins, minerals, protein, fat, calories, and other nutrients from foods and drinks, a condition called malabsorption. Malabsorption can lead to

  • dehydration
  • low levels of certain vitamins and minerals
  • malnutrition
  • problems with growth and development in infants and children

Digestive tract complications

Short bowel syndrome and its treatment can affect how the digestive tract works, leading to complications such as

  • lactose intolerance, a condition in which you have bloating, diarrhea, and gas after you consume foods or drinks that contain lactose
  • small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, an increase in the number of bacteria or a change in the type of bacteria in the small intestine
  • problems with the movement of food through the digestive tract, which can lead to small intestinal bacterial overgrowth and chronic inflammation in the small intestine
  • too much stomach acid, which may occur for 6 to 12 months after a small bowel resection and can lead to peptic ulcers1

Other complications

Short bowel syndrome and treatment with parenteral nutrition may lead to complications in other parts of the body, including

  • bone problems, such as osteoporosis or low bone mass, also called osteopenia
  • gallstones—hard, pebblelike pieces of material that form in your gallbladder
  • intestinal failure-associated liver disease—liver damage related to intestinal failure and long-term parenteral nutrition
  • kidney stones—hard, pebblelike pieces of material that form in one or both of your kidneys
  • problems related to the tube, called a catheter, that is inserted into a vein to provide parenteral nutrition


Last Reviewed April 2023
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This content is provided as a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the National Institutes of Health. NIDDK translates and disseminates research findings to increase knowledge and understanding about health and disease among patients, health professionals, and the public. Content produced by NIDDK is carefully reviewed by NIDDK scientists and other experts.