Small intestine

Last updated: September 26, 2022

Summarytoggle arrow icon

The small intestine is a hollow intraperitoneal organ that develops from the distal foregut and midgut. It extends from the pylorus of the stomach to the ileocecal junction and is subdivided into the duodenum, the jejunum, and ileum. With the exception of the proximal duodenum, which is supplied by the celiac trunk, the main arterial supply for the small intestine is provided by branches of the superior mesenteric artery. The veins of the small intestine drain into the portal vein and the lymphatics eventually drain into the superior mesenteric and celiac lymph nodes. The small intestine is innervated by the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, as well as the myenteric plexus and submucous plexus of the enteric nervous system. The mucosa of the small intestine contains many folds (i.e., plicae circulares, intestinal villi, and microvilli), which greatly increase its absorptive surface area. It also contains intestinal glands (crypts of Lieberkuhn) made up of enterocytes, which reabsorb nutrients, and other specialized cells of the small intestine (e.g., stem cells, Paneth cells, goblet cells, enteroendocrine cells). Pancreatic secretions and bile collect in the duodenum and break down chyme into sugars, amino acids, and fatty acids. Absorption of micronutrients and water predominantly occurs in the jejunum. Absorption of vitamin B12 and bile acids occurs in the terminal ileum.

Gross anatomytoggle arrow icon

Overview [1]

Anatomical subdivisions


  • First and widest part of the small intestine
  • C-shaped: surrounds the head of the pancreas
  • Located mainly within the epigastric and umbilical regions of the abdomen
Parts of the duodenum

Peritoneal relations

Embryological origin Important anatomy Clinical significance
First part of the duodenum (superior) (duodenal bulb)
Second part of the duodenum (descending)
Third part of the duodenum (horizontal)
4th (ascending) part

Only the 1st part of the duodenum is intraperitoneal. The 2nd–4th parts are retroperitoneal.


  • Second part of the small intestine
  • Located mainly in the LUQ of the abdomen
  • Intraperitoneal


  • Final and narrowest part of the small intestine
  • Located mainly in the RLQ of the abdomen
  • Intraperitoneal
  • Separated from the large intestine at the ileocecal junction by the ileocecal valve:
    • Muscular sphincter; that regulates the passage of fluid and nutrients from the ileum into the cecum and prohibits reflux
    • Provides a mechanical barrier to bacterial migration into the small intestine

Swallowed foreign objects are most likely to become lodged in the narrowest parts of the small intestine: the pylorus, the DJ flexure, and the ileocecal junction.

Vasculature, lymphatics, and innervation of the small intestine

Functional bowel obstruction, or paralytic ileus, occurs most commonly as a postoperative complication. Mechanical bowel obstruction of the small bowel occurs most commonly as a result of postoperative bowel adhesions.

Microscopic anatomytoggle arrow icon

The four histological layers of the small intestine are the same as the layers of the gastrointestinal tract.

Microscopic anatomy of the small intestine

Microscopic anatomy of the small intestine [2]
Parts of the small intestine Mucosa Submucosa Muscularis propria Serosa

IgA is the main antibody of the intestines and is often called “secretory IgA” because it is also found in tears, saliva, mucus, and breast milk.

Specialized cells of the small intestine

Specialized cells of the small intestine
Cell Secretory product Location and characteristics Function
  • None

Enteroendocrine cells

G cells
D cells
I cells
S cells
K cells
Mo cells
Paneth cells
Goblet cells
  • Mucous
  • Glycoproteins
Stem cells
  • None
  • Proliferate and differentiate into the various cells of the small intestine
  • Repair mucosal injuries

The diagnosis of celiac disease is confirmed via endoscopy of the duodenum. Biopsy specimens show villous atrophy, crypt hyperplasia, and intraepithelial lymphocytic infiltration.

Functiontoggle arrow icon

Vitamin B12 must be bound to intrinsic factor to be absorbed.

Dude Is Just Feeling Ill, Bro: The Duodenum is the site of Iron (Fe2+) absorption. The Jejunum is the primary site of Folate absorption. The terminal Ileum is the site of vitamin B12 (dependent on intrinsic factor) and Bile salt absorption.

Embryologytoggle arrow icon

Duodenal atresia occurs when the closed duodenum fails to recanalize during development. It is frequently accompanied by further anomalies, especially Down syndrome, and appears on abdominal x-ray as a double bubble sign.

Jejunal and ileal atresia result from vascular accidents in utero, which cause ischemia, necrosis, and reabsorption of segments of the small intestine.

Meckel diverticulum is the most common congenital gastrointestinal tract anomaly and can result in intussusception, volvulus, or obstruction in the terminal ileum.

Referencestoggle arrow icon

  1. Standring S. Gray's Anatomy: The Anatomical Basis of Clinical Practice. Elsevier Health Sciences ; 2016
  2. Normal histology of the small intestine. Updated: February 9, 2018. Accessed: February 22, 2019.
  3. Santaolalla R, Fukata M, Abreu MT. Innate immunity in the small intestine.. Current opinion in gastroenterology. 2011; 27 (2): p.125-31.doi: 10.1097/MOG.0b013e3283438dea . | Open in Read by QxMD

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