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Intussusception

What Is Intussusception?

Intussusception (in-tuh-suh-SEP-shun) is the most common abdominal emergency affecting children under 2 years old. It happens when one part of the bowel slides into the next, much like the pieces of a telescope.

When this "telescoping" happens:

  • The flow of fluids and food through the bowel can get blocked.
  • The intestine can swell and bleed.
  • The blood supply to the affected part of the intestine can get cut off. Eventually, part of the bowel can die.

Intussusception is a medical emergency that needs care right away.

A look inside
            the intestine with and without intussusception

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Intussusception?

Babies and children with intussusception have intense belly pain that:

  • often begins suddenly
  • makes the child draw the knees up toward the chest
  • makes the child cry very loudly

As the pain eases, the child may stop crying for a while and seem to feel better. The pain usually comes and goes like this, but can be very strong when it returns.

Symptoms also can include:

  • a swollen belly
  • vomiting
  • vomiting up bile, a bitter-tasting yellowish-green fluid
  • passing stools (poop) mixed with blood and mucus, known as currant jelly stool
  • grunting due to pain

As the illness continues, the child may:

  • get weaker
  • develop a fever
  • appear to go into shock, a life-threatening medical problem in which lack of blood flow to the body's organs causes the heart to beat quickly and blood pressure to drop

What Causes Intussusception?

Most of the time, doctors don't know what causes intussusception. In some cases, it might follow a recent attack of gastroenteritis (or "stomach flu"). Bacterial or viral gastrointestinal infections may cause swelling of the infection-fighting tissue that lines the intestine, which may cause part of the intestine to be pulled into the other.

In kids younger than 3 months old or older than 5, intussusception is more likely to be caused by an underlying condition like enlarged lymph nodes, a tumor, or a blood vessel problem in the intestines.

Who Gets Intussusception?

Intussusception happens in 1 to 4 out of every 1,000 infants. It's most common in babies 5 to 9 months old, though older children also can have it. Boys get intussusception more often than girls.

How Do Doctors Diagnose and Treat Intussusception?

Doctors usually check for intussusception if a child is having repeat episodes of pain, drawing up the legs, vomiting, feeling drowsy, or passing stools with blood and mucus.

During the visit, the doctor will ask about the child's overall health, family health, any medicines the child takes, and any allergies the child has. The doctor will examine the child, paying special attention to the belly, which may be swollen or tender to the touch. Sometimes the doctor can feel the part of the intestine that's involved.

If the doctor suspects intussusception, the child may be sent to an emergency room (ER). Usually, doctors there will ask a pediatric surgeon to see the child right away. The ER doctor might order an abdominal ultrasound or X-ray, which can sometimes show a blockage in the intestines. If the child looks very sick, suggesting damage to the intestine, the surgeon may take the child to the operating room right away to fix the blocked bowel.

Two kinds of enemas often can diagnose and treat intussusception at the same time:

  • In an air enema, doctors place a small soft tube in the rectum (where poop comes out) and pass air though the tube. The air travels into the intestines and outlines the bowels on the X-rays. If there’s intussusception, it shows the telescoping piece in the intestine. At the same time, the pressure of the air unfolds the inside-out section of bowel and cures the blockage.
  • In a barium enema, a liquid mixture called barium is used instead of air to fix the blockage in the same way.

Both types of enema are very safe, and children usually do very well. In a few cases, intussusception can return, usually within 72 hours of the procedure.

If the intestine is torn, an enema doesn't work, or the child is too sick to try an enema, the child will need surgery. This is often the case in older children. Surgeons will try to fix the obstruction, but if too much damage has been done, that part of the bowel will be removed.

After treatment, the child will stay in the hospital and get intravenous (IV, through a vein) feedings until able to eat and normal bowel function returns. Doctors will watch the child closely to make sure that the intussusception does not return. Some babies also may get antibiotics to prevent infection.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

Intussusception is a medical emergency. Call your doctor or get emergency medical help right away if your child has any symptoms of intussusception, such as:

  • repeated crampy belly pain
  • vomiting
  • drowsiness
  • passing of currant jelly stool

Most infants treated within the first 24 hours recover completely with no problems. But untreated intussusception can cause severe problems that get worse quickly. So it's important to get help right away — every second counts.

Date reviewed: September 2014