Short Bowel Syndrome in Children

What is short bowel syndrome in children?

Short bowel syndrome is a group of problems. They happen to children who have had a significant part of their small intestine removed. This complex condition can be life-threatening in some babies and children.

The small intestine is a long, curving organ. It connects your stomach to your large intestine. Digestion starts in your stomach. But most digestion takes place in the small intestine. The small intestine also absorbs nutrients. Bowel refers to the small intestine and large intestine together.

Your child can have problems when half or more of his or her small intestine is taken out. He or she may not be able to absorb enough water, vitamins, and other nutrients. This can cause major nutritional problems and symptoms.

This can include a higher risk for short bowel syndrome. The more of the small intestine that’s removed, the greater your child’s chance for severe problems.

Different parts of the small intestine absorb different nutrients. If your child has a latter part of the small intestine taken out, he or she can have nutritional problems. This is because the first part of the small intestine cannot absorb all nutrients. Having the valve between the small and large intestine also makes a big difference in your child’s health. Some children with short bowel syndrome have also had part of their large intestine taken out. This leads to more problems.

Having short bowel syndrome from birth is very uncommon. The underlying cause of short bowel syndrome is often different between newborns and adults.

What causes short bowel syndrome in a child?

A problem your child is born with (congenital) can keep the small intestine from forming properly. This can cause short bowel syndrome in newborns.

Short bowel syndrome in infants can be caused by conditions that require part of the small intestine to be removed. Issues that permanently harm the small intestine can also cause symptoms of short bowel syndrome.

Some of the causes of this condition in infants can include:

  • Dead cells in the intestines (necrotizing enterocolitis)
  • Blockage in a part of the small intestine called the ileus (meconium ileus). It happens when the first solid stools passed by a newborn are thicker and stickier than normal. 
  • Abdominal wall defects
  • Twisting of the intestines (volvulus)
  • Intestinal problems that are present at birth (congenital)
  • Severe problems with absorbing nutrients
  • Problems with digested food moving through the intestines

Later in childhood, there are other common causes of short bowel syndrome. These can include inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract (Crohn’s disease) and intestinal trauma.

Which children are at risk for short bowel syndrome?

Your child is at greater risk for short bowel syndrome if he or she has certain health issues. These include necrotizing enterocolitis.

What are the symptoms of short bowel syndrome in a child?

Symptoms of short bowel syndrome in children include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Poor weight gain
  • Recurrent vomiting
  • Cramping
  • Heartburn
  • Fatigue
  • Food sensitivities

Symptoms vary, depending on which part and how much of the intestine was removed.

How is short bowel syndrome diagnosed in a child?

If your child has had a large part of his or her small intestine removed, his or her healthcare provider will look for short bowel syndrome. If your child has a history of surgery and symptoms of short bowel syndrome, he or she is likely to have the condition. Diagnosing small bowel syndrome may be trickier if your child is born with the condition.

Your child’s healthcare provider may rule out other causes of your symptoms. He or she will do an exam and ask about your child’s symptoms. Your child’s healthcare provider may also do other tests. These can include:

  • Basic blood tests, to check for infection, anemia, and electrolytes
  • Tests to check for nutritional deficiencies
  • Stool tests, to see if your child is absorbing enough fat
  • X-ray or CT scan of your child’s abdomen, to look for complications
  • Endoscopy, to look at your child’s esophagus, stomach, and early duodenum
  • Colonoscopy, to look at your child’s colon

How is short bowel syndrome treated in a child?

Treatment depends on how severe the condition is. It also depends on how long it’s been since your child had his or her small intestine removed.

After surgery, your child’s remaining intestine slowly adapts. Over time, it is able to absorb nutrients better. This process can take a year or two. This varies depending on how much and what part of your child’s small intestine was taken out.

Your child will likely have feedings through an IV (parenteral) after surgery. This means that he or she won’t eat anything. Instead, he or she will get nutrients through a tube placed in the vein.

As your child recovers, his or her healthcare provider may slowly start enteral feedings. This gives liquid nutrition directly to your child’s stomach or small intestine through a feeding tube. Over time, your child’s healthcare provider will try to increase the enteral feedings and decrease the parenteral feedings. If your child is a baby, he or she may be able to get breastmilk in the enteral feeding.

Your child’s healthcare provider may eventually move him or her to oral feedings. He or she will need to eat small meals often. He or she will also need to stay away from foods that are high in simple carbohydrates, such as juices. Your child may need more calories than other children because of the loss of part of the intestine.

Some people with severe short bowel syndrome will need long-term parenteral nutrition. This can sometimes cause problems. If this happens, your child may need a small intestine transplantation. Or your child’s healthcare provider may suggest a non-transplantation surgery. This can improve how your child absorbs nutrients.

Other treatments for short bowel syndrome include:

  • Special diet
  • H2 blockers or proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). These are medicines to decrease stomach secretions.
  • Medicines to treat diarrhea
  • Extra nutritional supplements such as fiber or fat
  • Electrolyte solutions. Your child may take these by mouth (orally) or through an IV (intravenous line).
  • Medicines to prevent liver damage. These are given to children on parenteral nutrition.
  • Medicines to help the small intestine adapt

What are the possible complications of short bowel syndrome in a child?

This condition can cause serious issues. Your child’s healthcare provider will watch for complications. He or she will also try to treat any problems early on. Complications depend on which part and how much of the intestine was removed.

If problems aren’t treated well, your child can have diarrhea. This can cause dehydration, weight loss, and malnutrition. It may even lead to death.

Other complications can include:

  • Liver disease. This can happen from long-term use of parenteral nutrition. In rare cases, this may lead to a liver transplant.
  • Your child may need to have his or her gallbladder removed.
  • Bacterial overgrowth of the small intestine. This can make your child’s symptoms of short bowel syndrome worse.
  • Nutrient deficiencies. Specific problems depend on which nutrients are low. For instance, some children show early bone loss. This is because of poor absorption of calcium and other nutrients.
  • Kidney stones. This is caused by extra oxalate in your child’s urine.

Follow your child’s healthcare provider’s orders about diet and medicines. Doing so will reduce your child’s risk for problems.

Online Medical Reviewer: Lehrer, Jenifer, MD

Online Medical Reviewer: Bass, Pat F III, MD, MPH

Date Last Reviewed: 5/1/2018

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