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Anatomy Of The Small Intestine

Discover the intricate workings and functions of the small intestine, the unsung hero of digestion, and unlock the secrets behind its integral role in our overall health and well-being.

USMLE Guide: Anatomy of the Small Intestine


This guide will provide an overview of the anatomy of the small intestine, an essential topic for the USMLE. The small intestine plays a crucial role in digestion and nutrient absorption, making it a key area of study for medical students. By following this guide, you will gain a comprehensive understanding of the anatomy of the small intestine, including its structure, histology, and vascular supply.

Table of Contents

  1. Structure of the Small Intestine
  2. Histology of the Small Intestine
  3. Vascular Supply of the Small Intestine
  4. Clinical Relevance
  5. Summary

Structure of the Small Intestine

The small intestine is a long, convoluted tube extending from the pylorus of the stomach to the cecum of the large intestine. It consists of three main sections:

  1. Duodenum: The shortest section, approximately 25 cm long, connects the stomach to the jejunum. It receives digestive enzymes from the pancreas and bile from the liver via the common bile duct.
  2. Jejunum: The middle section, approximately 2.5 meters long, is responsible for the majority of nutrient absorption.
  3. Ileum: The longest section, approximately 3.5 meters long, connects the jejunum to the cecum. It plays a vital role in the absorption of bile salts, vitamin B12, and other essential nutrients.

Histology of the Small Intestine

The wall of the small intestine consists of four layers:

  1. Mucosa: The innermost layer in direct contact with the intestinal contents. It is composed of three sublayers:
    • Epithelium: Comprised of absorptive cells, goblet cells (secreting mucus), and enteroendocrine cells.
    • Lamina propria: Contains blood and lymphatic vessels, as well as immune cells.
    • Muscularis mucosae: Smooth muscle layer providing support and movement of the mucosa.
  2. Submucosa: A connective tissue layer containing larger blood and lymphatic vessels, as well as the submucosal plexus (Meissner's plexus), which regulates glandular secretions.
  3. Muscularis externa: Consists of an inner circular and an outer longitudinal layer responsible for peristaltic movements.
  4. Serosa: The outermost layer that secretes serous fluid and provides protection.

Vascular Supply of the Small Intestine

The small intestine receives its blood supply from the superior mesenteric artery (SMA). The arterial supply can be divided into three main branches:

  1. Jejunal and Ileal Arteries: Arise from the SMA and form a rich network of vessels supplying the jejunum and ileum.
  2. Arcades: These vessels run parallel to the small intestine, connecting the jejunal and ileal arteries.
  3. Vasa Recta: Arising from the arcades, these short vessels penetrate the submucosa and supply the mucosa of the small intestine.

The venous drainage follows a similar pattern, with the blood ultimately draining into the superior mesenteric vein and then into the portal venous system.

Clinical Relevance

Several clinical conditions can affect the small intestine, including:

  • Malabsorption Syndromes: Conditions such as celiac disease, Crohn's disease, and tropical sprue can impair nutrient absorption in the small intestine, leading to malabsorption.
  • Intestinal Obstruction: Mechanical obstructions, such as adhesions, tumors, or hernias, can cause a blockage in the small intestine, leading to symptoms like abdominal pain, vomiting, and constipation.
  • Intestinal Ischemia: Insufficient blood supply to the small intestine, often due to embolic or thrombotic occlusion of the mesenteric vessels, can result in ischemia, leading to abdominal pain, bloody diarrhea, and potentially bowel infarction.


Understanding the anatomy of the small intestine is crucial for medical students preparing for the USMLE. The small intestine consists of the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum, each with distinct functions and lengths. Its histology encompasses mucosa, submucosa, muscularis externa, and serosa layers. The superior mesenteric artery supplies the small intestine, and its venous drainage joins the portal venous system. Clinical conditions related to the small intestine include malabsorption syndromes, intestinal obstruction, and intestinal ischemia.

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