What is Hirschsprung disease?
Hirschsprung disease is a rare birth defect. It affects the nerve cells in the large
intestine. These nerve cells control the muscles that move food and waste, or stool,
through the large intestine. The large intestine is the last part of the digestive
Babies with Hirschsprung disease are missing nerve cells in all or part of the large
intestine. Without these nerve cells, the muscles can’t move food and waste through
that part of the large intestine. Stool can’t move forward. It stays in the large
The intestine can become partly or fully blocked. It begins to grow larger than normal.
This can cause constipation, swelling, pain, and infection.
What causes Hirschsprung disease?
During pregnancy, a baby’s nerve cells form along the intestines. They begin in the
mouth and end in the anus. In babies with Hirschsprung disease, the nerve cells don’t
grow past a certain part of the large intestine. Experts don’t know why this happens.
Who is at risk for Hirschsprung disease?
A child is more at risk for Hirschsprung disease if there is a family history of the
disorder. Some genetic syndromes, such as Down syndrome, are also linked with the
Boys are more likely to have Hirschsprung disease than girls.
What are the symptoms of Hirschsprung disease?
Most babies with Hirschsprung disease have symptoms in the first few weeks of life.
In some cases only a short part of the intestine may be affected. Then symptoms may
not be seen for a few months or years.
Each child’s symptoms may vary. Symptoms in newborns may include:
- Not having a bowel movement in the first 48 hours of life
- Slow swelling or bloating of the belly
- Vomiting green or brown fluid
Children who don’t show early symptoms may also have:
- Constipation that gets worse over time
- Loss of appetite
- Slow or delayed growth
- Small, watery, bloody stools
- Loss of energy
Symptoms of Hirschsprung disease may seem like other health problems. See your child's healthcare
provider for a diagnosis.
How is Hirschsprung disease diagnosed?
Your child’s healthcare provider will do an exam and take a health history. The provider
will ask questions about constipation and bowel movements. Other tests may be done
to find out if your child has Hirschsprung disease. These tests may include:
- Abdominal X-ray. This test may show a lack of stool in the large intestine or near the anus. It can
also show if part of the large intestine is bulging. The bulging is caused by blocked
- Barium enema. This X-ray exam checks the large intestine for any problems. Your child is given a
metallic fluid called barium. Barium coats the organs so they can be seen on an X-ray.
The barium is put into a tube and inserted into your child’s rectum as an enema. An
X-ray of the belly will show any narrowed areas or any blockages. It will also show
if the intestine is bulging above a blockage.
- Anorectal manometry. This test is most often used for older children. A small tube is put into the rectum
to check how well the rectal muscles are working. If the muscles don't relax, it may
be a sign of Hirschsprung disease.
- Biopsy of the rectum or large intestine. A tiny piece of the large intestine is removed. It is checked under a microscope to
see if any nerve cells are missing.
How is Hirschsprung disease treated?
Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also
depend on how severe the condition is.
Hirschsprung disease is treated with surgery called a pull-through procedure. A surgeon
removes the part of the large intestine that lacks nerve cells. When possible, the
healthy part that is left is connected to the anal opening.
In some cases surgery may be done in 2 stages. A child who is very sick from Hirschsprung
disease may first need ostomy surgery. This can help the child heal before the pull-through
surgery. With ostomy surgery, the diseased part of the large intestine is removed.
The end of the healthy intestine is moved to an opening made in the belly. This opening
is called a stoma. Stool passes through the stoma and into a bag worn outside the
body. The bag must be emptied several times a day.
An ostomy may be short-term, or temporary. Or it may be permanent. It depends on how
much of the intestine must be removed. If it is short-term, the surgeon will connect
the healed intestine to the anus and sew the stoma closed.
What are the complications of Hirschsprung disease?
In Hirschsprung disease a part of the large intestine lacks normal nerve cells. This
means that digested food and stool can’t move forward through that part of the digestive
tract. The large intestine becomes blocked with stool. Your baby will be constipated,
or unable to have normal bowel movements.
The blockage creates pressure on the inside of the intestine. This causes part of
the intestinal wall to wear thin. Over time, a bacterial infection called enterocolitis
can develop in the digestive tract. This is very serious. Symptoms of enterocolitis
- Swollen belly
- Bleeding from the rectum
- Lack of energy
Call your child’s healthcare provider right away if your child has any signs of enterocolitis.
Living with Hirschsprung disease
Your child’s bowel function may be affected after surgery. The most common long-term
problems include bowel control and leaking stool, constipation, and infections.
Problems that may occur after surgery depend on the amount of intestine that lacked
nerve cells, and how much intestine was removed.
Children who are able to have their ostomy closed may have short-term problems, including:
- Stools may be frequent and loose at first. To prevent skin irritation, try cleaning
the anal area carefully to remove stool. Also try using diaper rash creams or lotions.
- Children may have trouble sensing the need to have a bowel movement. The urge to have
a bowel movement is greater after eating. It may help to have your child spend 10
minutes after meals on the toilet.
- Some children have problems with bowel movements because the anal opening is tight.
A special method called rectal dilation may help. Your child's healthcare provider can
teach you this method if it’s right for your child.
Children who had a large section of intestine removed may have long-term problems.
The digestive process can be affected. Nutrients and fluids are absorbed from food
in the small intestine. Removing a large segment of the intestine can prevent a child
from getting enough nutrients and fluids. Children can have problems with poor digestion,
slow growth, and infection. Your child may need to eat and drink more in order to
get enough nutrients and fluid.
Talk with your child’s healthcare provider about your child’s specific situation.
When should I call my child's healthcare provider?
Call your child's healthcare provider if your newborn doesn’t have a bowel movement
in the first 48 hours of life.
Call the provider if your infant or child has any of these symptoms:
- Bowel movements are not regular
- Increasing constipation
If your child has had surgery for Hirschsprung disease, call the provider if your
- Swollen belly or abdomen
- Rectal bleeding
Key points about Hirschsprung disease
- Hirschsprung disease is a rare birth defect. It affects the nerve cells in the large
- Children with this disorder are missing nerve cells in all or part of the large intestine.
- Without these nerve cells, stool can’t move forward through the large intestine. This
can cause constipation, swelling, pain, and infection.
- Most children with Hirschsprung disease show symptoms in the first few weeks of life.
- Hirschsprung disease is treated with surgery.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s health care provider:
- Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
- At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any
new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
- If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose
for that visit.
- Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important
if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.