Intussusception

What is intussusception?

Intussusception is a condition in which part of the intestine folds into itself, much like a collapsible telescope. Usually, the last part of the small intestine, called the ileum, folds into the first part of large intestine, called the cecum.

How common is intussusception?

In the United States, about 35 to 40 of every 100,000 babies younger than age 1 is hospitalized for intussusception.8 Intussusception is the most common cause of intestinal obstruction in babies and young children.9,10

Who is more likely to get intussusception?

Babies and young children are more likely than adults to get intussusception. Intussusception is most common in babies younger than age 1, and about 90 percent of cases occur in children younger than age 3.11

Intussusception is rare in adults. Only about 5 percent of cases of intussusception occur in adults.11

Intussusception is more common in boys than in girls.11

What are the complications of intussusception?

Without treatment, intussusception can lead to life-threatening complications, such as

  • intestinal obstruction
  • dehydration
  • lack of blood flow to the blocked part of the intestine and death of the blood-starved tissues
  • a perforation, or hole, in the wall of the intestine
  • peritonitis, an infection of the lining of the abdominal cavity
  • sepsis, a serious illness that occurs when the body has an overwhelming immune system response to an infection
  • shock

What are the symptoms of intussusception?

Anyone with signs or symptoms of intussusception or its complications should get medical help right away.

The signs and symptoms of intussusception in babies and children may include

  • severe colicky or crampy pain in the abdomen
  • crying and not able to be comforted
  • drawing their knees up to their chest
  • lethargy, or lack of energy
  • vomiting
  • stool mixed with blood and mucus, called currant jelly stool

Symptoms of intussusception in adults may include

Signs and symptoms of complications of intussusception may include

  • signs of dehydration, such as thirst, urinating less than usual, and feeling tired
  • signs of infection, such as fever
  • signs of shock, such as confusion or unconsciousness, a fast heart rate, pale skin, and sweating

What causes intussusception?

Children

In most cases of intussusception in babies and young children, doctors cannot find a cause. Research suggests that infections with viruses or bacteria may increase the chance of intussusception.

Doctors can find a cause in only 2 to 12 percent of cases of intussusception in children.11 These causes include

Adults

In adults, doctors can find the cause of intussusception in about 90 percent of cases.12 Causes of intussusception in adults include

How do doctors diagnose intussusception?

To diagnose intussusception, doctors will ask about symptoms and medical history, perform a physical exam, and order imaging tests.

Physical exam

During a physical exam, the doctor may

  • check for bloating of the abdomen
  • check for a lump or mass in the abdomen
  • press or tap on the abdomen to check for tenderness or pain
  • use a stethoscope to listen to sounds in the abdomen
  • check for signs of complications, such as dehydration or shock
Doctor using a stethoscope to listen to abdominal sounds in an infant.
During a physical exam, the doctor may use a stethoscope to listen to sounds in the abdomen.

Imaging tests

Doctors may use the following tests to diagnose intussusception

  • x-rays, which use a small amount of radiation to create pictures of the inside of the body
  • ultrasound, which uses sound waves to create an image of organs
  • lower GI series, which uses x-rays and a chalky liquid called barium to view the large intestine
  • computed tomography (CT), more commonly used in adults, which uses a combination of x-rays and computer technology to create images

How do doctors treat intussusception?

In babies and children, doctors most often treat intussusception by performing an enema procedure that is similar to a lower GI series. A doctor inserts a tube through the anus and, with x-ray guidance, fills the large intestine with air, barium, or another substance to push the telescoped intestine back to its normal position.

A doctor may need to perform surgery to treat intussusception if the enema procedure does not work. A doctor may also perform surgery if the cause or complications of intussusception need treatment.

In adults, doctors most often treat intussusception with surgery.

References

August 2019
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This content is provided as a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the National Institutes of Health. The NIDDK translates and disseminates research findings through its clearinghouses and education programs to increase knowledge and understanding about health and disease among patients, health professionals, and the public. Content produced by the NIDDK is carefully reviewed by NIDDK scientists and other experts.