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Small bowel

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Small bowel scans 101: Small bowel medical imaging

The small bowel is the longest part of the digestive tract. Although digestion starts in your mouth, the small intestine performs most food digesting. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated figure of 1.3% of adults are affected by inflammatory bowel disease. Digestive diseases remain one of the most severe medical conditions in the United States. Not only do they cause discomfort, but if left untreated, they can even result in death. This is because certain conditions cause obstructions in the small bowel and prevent the absorption of nutrients and fluid. One of the best tools available for diagnosing small bowel disorders is a small bowel scan.

What is the small bowel?

The small bowel is more commonly known as the small intestine. This organ is a long, hollow coil connecting the stomach to the large intestine. The small bowel is approximately 20 feet long and curls several times to fit into the abdomen. The small bowel is comprised of three sections:

  • Duodenum.
  • Jejunum.
  • Ileum.

The small bowel plays a significant role in absorbing nutrients from your food. These nutrients include:

  • Vitamins.
  • Minerals.
  • Proteins.
  • Carbohydrates.
  • Fat.
  • Water.

Why do I need a small bowel scan?

Small bowel scans are crucial in providing detailed imagery of the small intestine. You may need to undergo a small bowel scan to reveal any obstructions in your small bowel. You may need a small bowel scan if you are experiencing symptoms such as:

  • Severe diarrhea.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Dehydration.
  • Abdominal bloating.
  • Pain in the lower abdomen. 
These can be signs of small bowel distress. A small bowel scan can help identify the cause of your symptoms and discomfort. The resulting pictures will also allow your doctor to create an accurate treatment plan for your condition. Small bowel scans can also be used as a preventive tool or to monitor the progress of a small bowel condition.

Common small bowel pain diagnoses

There are several reasons you could be experiencing bowel pain or lower abdominal discomfort. Some common medical conditions associated with small bowel pain diagnosis include:

  • Crohn's disease.
  • Celiac disease.
  • Bowel obstructions.
  • Small bacterial overgrowth.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Cancer.

Medical imaging scans for bowel discomfort

Medical imaging scans are essential in the evaluation and management of bowel discomfort. Proper diagnosis and treatment are imperative when slowing the progression of bowel disorders.

There are a few different scanning options for the small bowel. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor will recommend the best scan for your needs.

Small bowel MRI scans

A small bowel MRI scan is a medical imaging test that enables your doctor to see detailed images of your small intestine. A magnetic resonance imaging scan of the small bowel uses a magnetic field and radio waves to produce these images. To get an accurate picture, patients need to have a contrast dye administered. This dye will highlight certain tissue types, allowing the radiologist to make an informed diagnosis. A small bowel MRI scan can show:

  • Inflammation.
  • Obstruction.
  • Bleeding.
  • Tumors.
  • Tears in the bowel wall.

Small bowel CT scans

A CT scan for the small bowel uses an X-ray to produce detailed images of the small intestine. It's similar to an MRI and will require the patient to have a contrast dye administered to provide more precise and more detailed images. Unlike other imaging procedures, small bowel CT scans can show the thickness of the bowel. A CT scan can diagnose specific disorders, like Crohn's disease. The scan will highlight several tissues and organs, including:

  • The small intestine.
  • The large intestine.
  • The stomach.
  • The appendix.
  • Fat deposits.

Small bowel obstruction ultrasound

A small bowel ultrasound uses sound waves to penetrate the skin's surface and generate images of the tissue beneath. Ultrasounds of the small bowel are used primarily for identifying blockages or obstructions. They are very sensitive in identifying different types of tissue, especially near the skin's surface. They are also beneficial in identifying inflammation or bloating and finding the root cause of intestinal pain.

How much does a small bowel scan cost?

A small bowel scan may cost anywhere from $270 to $5000. This depends on the type of scan you receive, your insurance coverage, your insurance copay, and the location where you received your scan. MRI and CT scans require a contrast dye and will cost significantly more than an ultrasound.

How long does a small bowel scan take?

The length of time it takes to complete a small bowel scan depends on your receive type of scan.

  • CT scan: 30 to 60 minutes
  • MRI scan: 45 minutes to 2 hours
  • Ultrasound: approximately 30 minutes

Find a small bowel imaging center near me

If your doctor encourages you to receive a diagnostic imaging scan of your small bowel, don't hesitate to book an appointment. Use scan.com's easy-to-navigate scan search tool to find reputable medical imaging centers that suit your personal needs.


  1. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/intestinal-obstruction/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20351465
  2. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/374962-overview
  3. https://www.cdc.gov/ibd/data-statistics.htm
  4. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/small-bowel-cancer/symptoms-causes/syc-20352497 - :~:text=Your small intestine, which is,hormones that help with digestion
  5. https://www.cedars-sinai.org/programs/imaging-center/exams/ct-scans/enterography.html