The patterns of small bowel motility: physiology and implications in organic disease and functional disorders


EinarHusebye MD PhD Consultant, Clinic of Medicine, Ullevaal University Hospital of Oslo, N-0407 Oslo, Norway. Tel.: 47 22 119100; fax: 47 67 147958; e-mail:


The physiology and pathophysiology of small bowel motility are reviewed with particular focus on the motility patterns and periods that are detected by intraluminal manometry. Motility patterns are groups of phasic pressure waves resulting from contractions of the circular muscle layer of the small bowel that are organized by the enteric nervous system. Phase III of the migrating motor complex, the hallmark of the fasting motility period, thus reflects enteric neuromuscular function. Response to meal challenge also involves the CNS, reflexes beyond the gut and endocrine responses. Although specific disease diagnosis cannot be made by motility studies of the small bowel, the functional integrity is revealed. The normal occurrence of the essential patterns and periods of motility and the absence of distinctly abnormal patterns evidence preserved function, whereas the opposite indicates clinically significant dysmotility. Certain motility patterns are occasionally seen both in health and disease, and increased prevalence indicates a moderate dysfunction of yet unclear significance. Bacterial overgrowth with Gram-negative bacilli is the consequence of severe small bowel dysmotility, and a diagnosis that can be predicted by a motility study. Testing can be useful in the clinical management of paediatric and adult patients also by predicting the prognosis and response to enteral nutrition and medical therapy. Further studies are, however, needed to take full advantage of motility testing in clinical practise.