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Small Intestine

Discover the essential functions, disorders, and surprising facts about the small intestine, the unsung hero of your digestive system, in this comprehensive article.

USMLE Guide: Small Intestine


The small intestine is a vital organ involved in the digestion and absorption of nutrients. It plays a crucial role in the gastrointestinal system and is a topic commonly tested on the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). This guide aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the small intestine to aid in your preparation for the exam.


The small intestine is a long, highly coiled tube extending from the stomach to the large intestine. It is divided into three parts:

  1. Duodenum: The first segment of the small intestine, it receives partially digested food from the stomach and secretions from the liver and pancreas.
  2. Jejunum: The middle segment, where most of the digestion and nutrient absorption take place.
  3. Ileum: The final segment, which connects the small intestine to the large intestine and is responsible for the absorption of vitamin B12 and bile salts.


The small intestine has a unique histological structure that supports its vital functions. Key features include:

  1. Villi: Finger-like projections covering the inner lining of the small intestine, increasing the surface area for nutrient absorption.
  2. Microvilli: Tiny projections on the surface of the epithelial cells of the villi, further enhancing surface area and aiding in nutrient absorption.
  3. Crypts of Lieberkühn: Invaginations located between the villi, containing goblet cells that secrete mucus and stem cells responsible for epithelial cell renewal.


The small intestine performs various essential functions, including:

  1. Digestion: mechanical and chemical digestion of food through the action of enzymes and bile salts.
  2. Absorption: Absorption of nutrients, such as carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals, into the bloodstream for distribution to the body's cells.
  3. Secretion: Secretion of digestive enzymes, mucus, and hormones, including secretin, cholecystokinin (CCK), and gastric inhibitory peptide (GIP).

Clinical Considerations

Understanding the clinical aspects of small intestine disorders is crucial for the USMLE. Here are some key conditions to be familiar with:

  1. Celiac Disease: An autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten ingestion, leading to small intestine inflammation and malabsorption.
  2. Crohn's Disease: A chronic inflammatory bowel disease that can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract, commonly involving the terminal ileum.
  3. Malabsorption Syndromes: Conditions that impair nutrient absorption, such as lactose intolerance and short bowel syndrome.
  4. Intestinal Obstruction: Blockage of the small intestine, often caused by adhesions, hernias, or tumors, leading to abdominal pain, distension, and vomiting.


The small intestine is a vital organ responsible for digestion, absorption, and secretion within the gastrointestinal system. Understanding its anatomy, histology, functions, and associated clinical conditions is essential for success in the USMLE. By reviewing this guide and further exploring each topic, you will be well-equipped to tackle related questions on the exam. Good luck!

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