Health Encyclopedia

Intussusception

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 even death.

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:

  • Vomiting
  • Bloody stool
  • Red, jelly-like stool
  • Fever
  • Extreme tiredness or lethargy
  • Vomiting bile
  • Diarrhea
  • Sweating
  • Dehydration
  • 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
  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • 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.

Next steps

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.


Medical Reviewers:

  • Freeborn, Donna, PhD, CNM, FNP
  • Kanipe, Jennifer, RN, BSN