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Digestive system

Intussusception is the telescoping of one portion of the intestine into another. It generally occurs in young children.

What is going on in the body? 
In this condition, one part of intestine abnormally slides inside the part of intestine next to it. This can be compared to one part of a telescope or antennae sliding into itself. When this occurs in the bowels, the veins and arteries that supply blood to the intestines are forced inside. This results in less blood flow, and less oxygen, to the intestine.

What are the signs and symptoms of the condition? 
Abdominal pain is the most common symptom. Typically, the child will have several minutes of abdominal pain so severe that a parent cannot console the child. The child may pull his legs tightly against the chest in an attempt to find comfort. A completely painfree period usually follows. This pattern often continues, causing a parent to seek medical attention. Other common symptoms include:
  • vomiting, which may occur with the first pain, or soon after
  • blood and mucous in the stool or "currant-jelly" stool. This stool often occurs within 12 to 24 hours of the first episode of pain.
If this condition is not diagnosed and treated quickly, the child will become sicker. Death may occur.

What are the causes and risks of the condition? 
Most causes are unknown. A viral infection is thought to cause the swollen areas inside the wall of the intestine. Abnormal growths or tumours are sometimes found as a cause.

What can be done to prevent the condition? 
There is nothing a parent can do to prevent this condition.

How is the condition diagnosed? 
Diagnosis is made by barium enema in most cases. Barium is a liquid that can be seen on x-rays. Once barium is inserted into the intestine through the rectum, certain x-ray patterns identify the condition. Other x-ray tests may be used to diagnose this condition in some cases.

What are the long-term effects of the condition? 
Once the condition is treated, the long-term effects are minimal. When intussesception recurs, it usually does so within the first 24 hours after treatment. Recurrence occurs less than 10 percent of the time. If left untreated, this condition may result in permanent damage to the bowels or even death.

What are the risks to others? 
There are no risks to others.

What are the treatments for the condition? 
The treatment is often made by the same technique used for diagnosis. Barium or air is inserted through the rectum, causing the pressure inside the intestine to increase. This pressure forces the intestines back into their normal place. If this procedure fails, surgery is necessary. During surgery, the intestine is physically pulled back into normal position. The surgeon will look for and repair any cause.

What are the side effects of the treatments? 
Rarely, a barium enema can put a hole in the intestine. If this occurs, surgery will be necessary. Surgery carries a risk of bleeding, infection, and allergic reaction to the anaesthesia.

What happens after treatment for the condition? 
After treatment, the child is monitored inside of the hospital for at least 24 hours. When the child is eating and doing well and there is no sign of recurrence, he or she can generally go home.

How is the condition monitored? 
Monitoring is not usually necessary. If a child has new or worsening symptoms, immediate medical treatment should be obtained.

Author: Vincent J. Toups, MD
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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