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The purpose of testing may be to:

  • Screen those at risk for malabsorption because of an underlying condition such as cystic fibrosis.
  • Detect malabsorption, identify its underlying cause(s), and evaluate the types and severity of nutrient deficiencies present.
  • Detect complications such as anaemia.
  • Monitor the effectiveness of treatment in people with malabsorption.

There is no single test that can identify malabsorption or the underlying cause. Typically, a doctor will take into account many factors when ordering tests, including results from a physical examination, family history, medical history, and signs and symptoms. Testing will often be performed in steps with results leading toward a diagnosis while ruling out other possible causes. Testing typically involves ordering:

  • An initial set of general tests that evaluate body organs, cells, and digestion and that look for a cause for a person's persistent diarrhoea, one of the most common symptoms of malabsorption.
  • Specific follow-up tests that are used to detect or exclude diseases associated with malabsorption and to identify specific deficiencies and/or complications.

Laboratory Tests

Initial testing may include:

Based upon initial testing results, the person's symptoms, and the doctor's suspicions, follow-up testing may include one or more of the following:

Tests sometimes ordered include:

  • Methylmalonic Acid (MMA) – to detect early vitamin B12 deficiency.
  • Hydrogen breath test – to detect lactose intolerance and bacterial overgrowth in the digestive system (carbohydrate malabsorption).
  • Lactose absorption test – though this test is primarily used to detect a deficiency in the enzyme lactase (lactose intolerance), it may sometimes be used to identify malabsorption.
  • Biopsy of the intestine (through an endoscopy).

Non-Laboratory Tests

Testing to examine the digestive tract, liver, and/or pancreas is sometimes necessary and may include:

  • Abdominal ultrasound.
  • CT scan.
  • Endoscopy.
  • Endoscopic retrograde pancreatography (ERCP).

Learn more about imaging procedures at our feature article Other Testing: Radiology

Last Review Date: December 30, 2018