Birth Defects Gastrointestinal

Birth defects, also known as “congenital abnormalities,” are structural defects in some part or system of the body that can affect the body’s function. These congenital defects occur during fetal development, and are present in a baby from birth.

Like other complex body systems, the gastrointestinal system (or digestive system), responsible for digestion and extracting nutrients from food, is vulnerable to congenital defects during its development.

Healthy Gastrointestinal Tract Function

The gastrointestinal system is made up of several organs, including the:

  • Mouth
  • Esophagus
  • Stomach
  • Small intestine: Duodenum, jejunum and ileum
  • Large intestine: Cecum, colon, rectum and anus.

In healthy people, food enters the mouth, and is chewed and swallowed, passing through the esophagus to the stomach. The stomach breaks down the food, then passes it into the intestines, where it is digested further, and particles from the food can be absorbed. Waste is stored in the rectum, and excreted through the anus.

Although not part of the gastrointestinal tract, the following organs also play a role in digestion by helping to break down food:

  • Gallbladder
  • Liver
  • Pancreas.

Digestion breaks food down into small particles that can be absorbed through the intestinal wall and into the bloodstream. Many nutrients come from food and pass through the gastrointestinal tract, including:

  • Fats
  • Proteins
  • Sugars and carbohydrates
  • Vitamins and minerals.

Through digestion, these are broken down into component parts that can be absorbed and used by the body.

Congenital Gastrointestinal Defects

Birth defects can affect many organs in all parts of the gastrointestinal system. Gastrointestinal defects include:

  • Atresia of the gastrointestinal tract: Atresia is a condition in which a normal opening or passage is absent or closed. It can affect several parts of the gastrointestinal system, including the esophagus and the anus.
  • Defects of the abdominal wall: Abnormal openings or defects of the abdominal wall can allow abdominal organs, such as the intestines, to poke through (herniation). These congenital defects include omphalocele and gastroschisis.
  • Pyloric stenosis: This is a narrowing of the opening separating the stomach from the small intestine.

Treatment of Gastrointestinal Defects

Some gastrointestinal defects can be detected before birth through fetal ultrasound. Other defects in the gastrointestinal tract may not be found until after birth. Treatment for most gastrointestinal defects involves surgery, either to open a closed or narrowed passageway, or to close a defect in a barrier wall (such as the abdominal wall) through which organs of the gastrointestinal system are abnormally protruding.


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