Malabsorption – Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, & Treatment
What is malabsorption?
Malabsorption is a condition of decreased ability of the small intestine to absorb nutrients from food. Mostly, malabsorption involves an inability to absorb certain sugars, fats, proteins, or vitamins. It can also be related to an overall problem with absorbing food.
What causes malabsorption?
Many diseases can cause malabsorption. Certain medical conditions or damage to the small intestine can also cause malabsorption.
The following diseases and conditions may cause malabsorption:
- Crohn’s disease
- Celiac disease
- Presence of excessive bacteria in the small bowel
- Damage caused by radiation treatments
- Parasite or tapeworm infection
- Surgery that removes all or part of the small intestine
The pancreas produces certain enzymes that help absorb fats and other nutrients. Sometimes, a problem with the pancreas results in decreased level of these enzymes. This makes it harder to absorb fats and certain nutrients.
The following problems with the pancreas may result in a decreased level of enzymes:
- Infections of the pancreas
- Surgery to remove part of the pancreas
- Trauma to the pancreas
- Cystic fibrosis
The following factors can also cause malabsorption:
- Gastrectomy and surgical treatments for obesity
- Certain medicines (tetracycline, some antacids, some medicines used to treat obesity, colchicine, acarbose, phenytoin)
- Chronic liver disease
- AIDS and HIV
- Soy milk protein intolerance
- Cow’s milk protein intolerance
What are the symptoms of malabsorption?
Malabsorption in children may result in failure to thrive and weight faltering.This means the weight gain slows down in comparison to other children of similar age and gender. This results in the children not growing and developing normally.
Malabsorption in adults may also result in failure to thrive, with weight loss, muscle wasting, weakness, and even problems thinking.
Sometimes, the following changes in the stools may occur:
- Bulky stools
- Steatorrhea (fatty stools)
- Chronic diarrhea
- Bloating, cramping, and gas
How is malabsorption diagnosed?
Your doctor will perform a physical exam and review the symptoms. The doctor may do the following tests:
- CT scan of the abdomen
- X-rays of the small bowel
- MR or CT enterography
- Hydrogen breath test
- Blood and urine tests
- The culture of small intestine aspirate
- Stool culture
- Stool fat testing
- Schilling test for vitamin B12 deficiency
- Secretin stimulation test
- Small bowel biopsy
How is malabsorption treated?
The goal of the treatment will be to relieve symptoms and ensuring the body receives adequate nutrients. Treatment depends on what is causing the problem.
The doctor may give a high-calorie diet to supply key vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. If needed, the doctor may inject some vitamins, minerals, or special growth factors.
If the pancreas is damaged, the doctor may prescribe pancreatic enzymes.
Medicines may be prescribed to slow down the normal movement of the intestine. This allows food to remain in the intestine longer.
If the above treatment doesn’t work, the doctor may try total parenteral nutrition (TPN). It will help the affected person to get nutrition through a vein in the body.
After providing adequate nutrition, the doctor will treat the disease or condition that caused the problem.
This feature is for informational purposes only and is not intended to substitute the expert guidance of a doctor. We advise seeing a doctor if you have any health concerns.