Short bowel is a condition that occurs after single or multiple intestinal resections. The incidence of short bowel in Europe is 2 per million of the population1–3 and it carries with it lifelong morbidity and mortality. The initial recognition and management of short bowel in the adult population tends to occur in the postoperative period and in the secondary care setting, where specialist input from clinicians experienced in short bowel is often lacking.
Normal small bowel length is 275–850 cm.4–7 It is accepted that when the length of small bowel is reduced to less than 200 cm it may be insufficient to enable adequate absorption of fluids and micronutrients. The symptoms of short bowel (often referred to in the literature as short bowel syndrome) are secondary to a reduction in intestinal surface area together with an increased motility of the remaining section of small bowel, with accompanying increased secretion into the lumen. These intestinal secretions vary in their electrolyte content and osmolality depending on the anatomical location, with the highest chloride and potassium loss from gastric secretions and high sodium loss from jejunal secretions.8
Clinically, short bowel manifests itself as a high stomal output or diarrhoea, dehydration and malnutrition. High stomal output or diarrhoea do not, however, necessarily equate immediately to short bowel; conversely, a small bowel longer than 200cm may be insufficient if it is diseased.
Here, we discuss some of the pitfalls that are encountered in the recognition and management of short bowel and have suggested an algorithm for assessing and managing patients with a high stomal output. Although some of these pitfalls may appear obvious, they are addressed here because they are commonly encountered in clinical practice (summarised in table 1 at the end of the article).