What is Intestinal Failure?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 13 October 2019
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Intestinal failure is a health condition in which the intestinal tract is rendered incapable of digesting food properly. This creates a situation where the system is unable to process the nutrients, electrolytes and the fluids from that food in a manner that helps to support healthy body function. A failure of the digestive system may occur in children or adults, and is often a result of the presence of some type of ailment like Crohn’s disease. People who have had a portion of the small intestine removed may develop what is known as short bowel syndrome, a condition that often triggers intestinal failure.

There is also the chance that the intestinal failure is due to some type of congenital defect of the digestive system. This is sometimes the case with infants and children who are unable to receive essential nutrition from food. While in decades past, the presence of this type of system failure often led to a high mortality rate, innovations in medicine have greatly improved the chances of correcting or at least controlling the condition. Surgery can sometimes be employed to correct the defect, while the use of various types of medications may aid in the digestion and assimilation of nutrients from the food.


Another innovation, known as total parenteral nutrition or TPN, has also made a huge difference in the number of patients who survive this condition. The process of TPN involves the use of a catheter to provide essential nutrients, a process that helps to prevent malnutrition. Typically, the catheter is placed in the neck, arm, chest, or groin area. While not without some risks, this method can often make the difference between life and death.

Adults can also develop intestinal failure. People who develop Crohn’s disease are at a greater risk for a failure of the digestive tract. In like manner, the failure may be a reaction to some recent surgical procedure that traumatized the large or small intestines. Damage to the intestines from an accident or other mishap may also trigger a situation in which the digestive system is unable to break down food properly and make use of the nutrients ingested. Here, medication can sometimes help control the situation while other treatment options are explored. In the more severe cases of intestinal failure, the treatments may include transplants of either the large or small intestine, or some other surgical procedure that removes the damaged section of intestines, allowing the remainder of the system to begin functioning properly once more.


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