What is intussusception?
Intussusception is a serious problem in the intestine. It occurs when one part of
the intestine slides inside another part. The intestine then folds into itself like
a telescope. This creates a blockage or obstruction. It stops food that is being digested
from passing through the intestine.
Intussusception is the most common cause of intestinal blockage in children between
ages 3 months and 3 years. It is rare in newborn babies. But it can also occur in
older children, teenagers, and adults.
Intussusception is a medical emergency. If not treated, it can cause infection or
What causes intussusception?
Experts don’t know what causes intussusception. It may occur more often in children
who have a family history of the disorder.
Experts have found a link in some cases with other conditions. These include viral
infection, abdominal or intestinal tumors or masses, appendicitis, parasites, celiac
disease, and Crohn's disease.
What are the symptoms of intussusception?
Intussusception is a medical emergency. If you think your child may have the disorder,
see your child's healthcare provider right away.
Each child’s symptoms may vary. The most common symptom is sudden, loud crying. This
is caused by sudden, severe belly (abdominal) pain in an otherwise healthy child.
This belly pain occurs often. At first it may seem to be colic. Infants or children
may strain, draw their knees up, act very irritable, and cry loudly. Your child may
feel better and be playful between bouts of pain. Or your child may become tired and
weak from crying.
Other symptoms include:
- Bloody stool
- Red, jelly-like stool
- Extreme tiredness or lethargy
- Vomiting bile
- Swollen belly
Symptoms of intussusception may seem like other health problems. See your child's
healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
How is intussusception diagnosed?
Your child’s healthcare provider will take a health history and give your child a
physical exam. Imaging studies are also done to check the belly (abdominal) organs.
These tests may include:
- Abdominal X-ray. A diagnostic test that may show intestinal blockage.
- Ultrasound. A diagnostic imaging technique that uses high frequency sound waves and a computer
to create images of blood vessels, tissues, and organs. Ultrasounds are used to view
organs as they work and to check blood flow through various vessels.
- Upper GI series or barium swallow. This test looks at the organs of the top part of the digestive system. It checks the
food pipe (esophagus), the stomach, and the first part of the small intestine (duodenum).
Your child will swallow a metallic fluid called barium. Barium coats the organs so
that they can be seen on an X-ray. Then X-rays are taken to check the digestive organs.
- Barium enema or lower GI series. This is an X-ray exam of the rectum, the large intestine, and the lower part of the
small intestine. Your child will be 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 if there are
any narrowed areas called strictures, any blockages, or other problems. In some cases,
the intussusception fixes itself during this test. The intestine may go back into
place on its own. This can happen because of the pressure put on the intestine while
the barium is inserted.
How is intussusception treated?
Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also
depend on how severe the condition is.
Sometimes intussusception will repair itself while a child has a barium enema. In
many cases, the healthcare provider can correct the problem by giving an air enema.
This is done by placing a small tube in your child's rectum. Air is inserted in the
tube. The air may help move the intestine back into its normal position. But if your
child is very ill with an abdominal infection or other problems, the provider may
choose not to do this.
Surgery is needed if the intussusception is not repaired with a barium enema. Surgery
is also needed if your child is too ill to have a barium enema. For the surgery, your
child will be given anesthesia. The surgeon will make a cut or incision in the belly.
The surgeon will find the intussusception, and push the parts of the intestine back
into place. The intestine will be checked for damage. If any sections are not working
properly, they will be removed.
If your child’s intestine is damaged and the part removed is small, the two sections
of healthy intestine will be sewn back together.
In very rare cases, a large amount of intestine may be removed. This happens if the
damaged section of intestine is large. In this case, surgery can’t link together the
parts of the intestine that remain after the damaged section is removed. An ileostomy may
be done so that the digestive process can continue. With an ileostomy, the two remaining
healthy ends of intestine are brought through openings in the belly. Stool will pass
through the opening (stoma). It will then collect in a bag on the outside of the body.
The ileostomy may be short-term. Or in very rare cases it may be long-lasting or permanent.
It depends on how much intestine was removed.
What are the complications of intussusception?
Intussusception is a medical emergency. It is a life-threatening illness. If not treated,
it can cause serious problems such as:
- Intestinal infection
- The death of intestinal tissue
- Internal bleeding
- A severe abdominal infection called peritonitis
Living with intussusception
If not treated, intussusception is a life-threatening disorder.
Your child’s long-term outlook depends on how much damage was done to the intestines.
Children who had the damaged part of their intestine removed may have long-term problems.
Removing a large part of the intestine can affect the digestive process. These children
may need to eat and drink more to get the nutrients and fluids that they need.
Talk with your child's healthcare provider about your child’s prognosis.
When should I call my child's healthcare provider?
Intussusception is a medical emergency. Call your child's healthcare provider right
away if your baby has:
- Sudden, severe belly (abdominal) pain
- Bloody or red jelly-like stools
- Other signs of severe illness
Key points about intussusception
- Intussusception is a serious problem in the intestine. It is a medical emergency.
- It occurs when one part of the intestine slides inside another part. The intestine
then folds into itself like a telescope.
- This creates a blockage or obstruction. It stops food that is being digested from
passing through the intestine.
- In many cases, it can be corrected during diagnostic testing. In some cases, surgery
may be needed.
- If not treated, intussusception can be life-threatening.
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.