What is intussusception?

Intussusception is the most common cause of intestinal obstruction in children between 3 months and 6 years of age. Intussusception occurs when a portion of the intestine folds like a telescope, with one segment slipping inside another segment. This causes an obstruction, preventing the passage of food that is being digested through the intestine.

The walls of the two "telescoped" sections of intestine press on each other, causing irritation and swelling. Eventually, the blood supply to that area is cut off, which can cause damage to the intestine.


What causes intussusception?

The cause of intussusception is not known. It may occur more frequently in people who have relatives who also had intussusception.

An increased incidence of developing intussusception is often seen in children:

  • Who have cystic fibrosis and are also dehydrated.
  • Who have abdominal or intestinal tumors or masses.
  • Who have an intestinal virus known as gastroenteritis.
  • Who have an upper respiratory tract infection, including infection with adenovirus.
  • Who have just finished taking chemotherapy for cancer.

Recent links between rotavirus vaccine and intussusception

In 1998, a vaccine for the gastrointestinal infection called rotavirus was added to the list of recommended vaccinations for infants. Rotavirus is a potentially deadly viral infection that causes diarrhea and can lead to severe dehydration. By immunizing infants against rotavirus, it was hoped many deaths could be prevented in the United States and especially in developing nations of the world where diarrhea is particularly widespread.

However, in 1999, scientists noted that there might be a link between receiving the rotavirus vaccine and developing intussusception. Even though only 15 infants who had intussusception were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while 1.5 million doses of the vaccine were given, the vaccine was withdrawn from the market in July 1999 so that it could be evaluated further.

These cases of intussusception occurred within a few weeks after receiving the rotavirus vaccine. Experts feel that an infant who received the vaccine and has not had problems since then does not have an increased chance of developing intussusception in the future.

A new rotavirus vaccine is currently being evaluated.

How often does intussusception occur?

Intussusception occurs in 1 out of every 250 to 1,000 infants and children.

Intussusception is rarely seen in newborn infants. Sixty percent of those who develop intussusception are between 2 months and 1 year of age. Although 80 percent of the children who develop the condition are less than 2 years old, intussusception can also occur in older children, teenagers and adults.

Boys develop intussusception 3 to 4 times more often than girls.

Intussusception seems to occur more often in the spring and fall months.

Why is intussusception of concern?

Intussusception is a life-threatening illness. If left untreated, it can cause serious damage to the intestines, since their blood supply is cut off. Intestinal infection can occur and the intestinal tissue can also die. Untreated intussusception can also cause internal bleeding and a severe abdominal infection called peritonitis.

What are the symptoms of intussusception?

The most common symptom of intussusception is sudden onset of intermittent pain in a previously well child. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. The pain may be mistaken for colic at first and occurs at frequent intervals. Infants and children may strain, draw their knees up, act very irritable and cry loudly. Your child may recover and become playful in-between bouts of pain or may become tired and weak from crying.

Vomiting may also occur with intussusception and it usually starts soon after the pain begins.

Your child may pass a normal stool, but the next stool may look bloody. Further, a red, mucus or jelly-like stool is usually seen with intussusception.

Symptoms of intussusception may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Please consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.

How is intussusception diagnosed?

A physician will obtain a medical history and perform a physical examination of your child. Imaging studies are also done to examine the abdominal organs and may include:

  • Abdominal x-ray - a diagnostic test which may show intestinal obstruction.
  • Barium enema - a procedure performed to examine the large intestine for abnormalities. A fluid called barium (a metallic, chemical, chalky, liquid used to coat the inside of organs so that they will show up on an x-ray) is given into the rectum as an enema. An x-ray of the abdomen shows strictures (narrowed areas), obstructions (blockages) and other problems. On some occasions, the pressure exerted on the intestine while inserting barium will help the intestine to unfold, correcting the intussusception.

Treatment for intussusception:

Specific treatment for intussusception will be determined by your child's physician based on the following:

  • The extent of the problem.
  • The health of the child.
  • The opinion of the physicians involved in the child's care.
  • Your opinion and preference.

In some instances, intussusception will fix itself while being diagnosed with a barium enema. However, if your child is very ill with an abdominal infection or other complications, your physician may not choose to perform this procedure.

Treatment may include:

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An operation is necessary for intussusception that does not resolve with a barium enema, or for those who are too ill to have this diagnostic procedure. Under anesthesia, the surgeon will make an incision in the abdomen, locate the intussusception, and push the "telescoped" sections back into place. The intestine will be examined for damage, and, if any sections are not working correctly, they will be removed.

If there is damage to the intestine and the section removed is small, the two sections of healthy intestine will be sewn back together.

If the injured section of intestine is large, a significant amount of intestine may be removed. In this case, the parts of the intestine that remain after the damaged section is removed cannot be attached to each other surgically. A colostomy may be done so that the digestive process can continue. With a colostomy, the two remaining healthy ends of intestine are brought through openings in the abdomen. Stool will pass through the opening (called a stoma) and then into a collection bag. The colostomy may be temporary or permanent, depending on the amount of intestine that needed to be removed.

What is the long-term outlook for a child with intussusception?

If not treated, intussusception is a life-threatening disorder. If treated within 24 hours, most babies recover completely.

The long-term outlook depends on the extent of intestinal damage (if any). Children with intestinal injury who had the damaged part removed may have long-term problems. When a large portion of the intestine is removed, the digestive process can be affected. Removing a large segment of the intestine can prevent a child from getting adequate nutrients and fluids. In this case, nutrition may need to be supplemented with long-term, high calorie IV (intravenous) solutions given through special IV catheters.

Intussusception recurs in up to 10 percent of children.

Consult your physician regarding the prognosis for your child.