What is a Small Bowel Transplant?

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  • Written By: Meshell Powell
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 06 October 2019
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A small bowel transplant is a surgical procedure in which the small intestine is removed and then replaced with the small intestine from an organ donor. This type of procedure becomes necessary when the small intestine no longer absorbs nutrients from the body or is not able to help pass food particles through the digestive tract. This type of intestinal failure may occur as the result of a birth defect, natural disease processes, or physical trauma. Recovery from a small bowel transplant may be lengthy, and the patient will require frequent medical monitoring and medications for the remainder of his or her life.

A small bowel transplant is performed only as a last resort when there is intestinal failure due to total parenteral nutrition, also known as TPN. Total parenteral nutrition involves intravenous feedings by means of a small tube placed inside of a vein. This type of feeding is often needed when the small intestine begins to fail. When complications arise from TPN feedings, a small bowel transplant becomes necessary in order to save the life of the patient.


Once a patient has been screened and approved for placement on the waiting list for a small bowel transplant, the official wait begins. It often takes several months for an appropriate match to become available from an organ donor. The patient must be prepared to leave for the hospital right away upon getting the call that a matching donor may have been found. In some cases, a portion of the small intestine may be transplanted from a matching living donor, although this is a relatively new development and not very commonly practiced.

During the small bowel transplant, the patient will be completely sedated. One or more incisions will be made into the abdominal wall. The small intestine will then be removed and replaced with the donor organ. After the surgery, the patient may spend several days or several weeks in the hospital so the medical staff can make sure there are no complications and that the new organ is functioning properly.

After a small bowel transplant, the patient will need to keep all regularly scheduled doctor appointments. Blood tests, along with other medical tests, will usually need to be performed periodically to make sure that the donor organ is continuing to function properly. Prescription medications will need to be taken daily for life in order to prevent the chances that the body will begin to reject the new organ.


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