Child Intussusception

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Continuing Education Activity

Intussusception is a condition in which part of the intestine folds into the section next to it. Intussusception usually involves the small bowel and rarely the large bowel. Symptoms include abdominal pain which may wax and wane, vomiting, bloating, and bloody stool. It may result in a small bowel obstruction. Other complications may include peritonitis or bowel perforation. This activity reviews the cause, pathophysiology and presentation of intussusception and highlights the role of the interprofessional team in its management.


  • Identify the causes of intussusception.
  • Describe the pathophysiology of intussusception.
  • Summarize the treatment options for intussusception.
  • Review the importance of improving care coordination among interprofessional team members to improve outcomes for patients affected by intussusception.


Intussusception is a condition in which part of the intestine folds into the section next to it. Intussusception usually involves the small bowel and rarely the large bowel. Symptoms include abdominal pain which may wax and wane, vomiting, bloating, and bloody stool. It may result in a small bowel obstruction. Other complications may include peritonitis or bowel perforation.[1][2][3][4]

The cause is typically unknown in children while in adults a lead point due to cancer is often present. Risk factors in children include infections, cystic fibrosis, and intestinal polyps. Risk factors in adults include endometriosis, bowel adhesions, and intestinal tumors. Medical imaging often supports a diagnosis. In children, ultrasound is a preferred the method to diagnose while in adults a CT scan is preferred.

Intussusception requires rapid treatment. Treatment in children is typically by an enema with surgery if not successful. In adults removal of part of the bowel is more often required. Intussusception occurs more commonly in children than adults. In

Intussusception occurs more commonly in children than adults, in children it is more common in males than females. The usual age of occurrence is six to 18 months old.


The causes of intussusception are not clearly known. About 90% of cases of intussusception in children arise from an unknown cause. They can include infections, anatomical factors, and altered motility.[5][6][7]

Known causes may include:

  • Infections
  • Anatomical factors
  • Altered motility
  • Meckel's diverticulum
  • Duplication
  • Polyps
  • Appendicitis
  • Hyperplasia of Peyer's patches
  • Idiopathic

An early version of the rotavirus vaccine that is no longer used was thought to cause intussusception, but the current vaccines are not clearly linked.


Intussusception is usually diagnosed in infancy and early childhood.

  • Intussusception strikes about 2000 children in the United States in the first year of life.
  • Intussusception is usually seen at five months of life, peaks at four to nine months, and then gradually declines at around 18 months.
  • Intussusception occurs more frequently in boys than in girls, with a ratio of approximately 3:1.
  • In adults, intussusception represents 1% of bowel obstructions and is associated with neoplasm.


Usually, the ileum enters the cecum. Rarely a part of the ileum or jejunum prolapses into itself. Almost all intussusceptions occur with the intussusceptum having been located proximally to the intussuscipiens. This is because a peristaltic action of the intestine pulls the proximal segment into the distal segment.

  • The part that prolapses into the other is called the intussusceptum.
  • The part that receives it is called the intussuscipiens.
  • An anatomic lead point occurs in approximately 10% of intussusceptions.

The trapped section of bowel may have its blood supply cut off, which causes ischemia. The mucosa is sensitive to ischemia and responds by causing sloughing off into the gut. This creates a "red currant jelly" stool, which is sloughed mucosa, blood, and mucus. "Red currant jelly" occurs in a minority of cases of intussusception and should be considered in the differential diagnosis of children passing any bloody stool.

History and Physical

Early symptoms include periodic abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting (green from bile), pulling legs to the chest, and cramping abdominal pain. Pain is intermittent because the bowel segment transiently stops contracting.

Later signs include rectal bleeding, often with "red currant jelly" stool, and lethargy. Physical examination may reveal a "sausage-shaped" mass. Children may cry, draw their knees up to their chest, or experience dyspnea with paroxysms of pain.

Fever is not a symptom of intussusception but a loop of bowel may become necrotic, secondary to ischemia, this leads to perforation and sepsis, which causes fever.

In rare cases, intussusception may be a complication of Henoch-Schönlein purpura. Such patients often present with severe abdominal pain in addition to the classic signs of Henoch-Schönlein purpura.


Intussusception is often suspected based on examination, including observation of Dance sign (Dance sign consists of evaluating right lower quadrant of the abdomen for retraction, which can be an indication of intussusception).

  • A digital rectal examination is helpful, as a finger may feel the intussusceptum.
  • A definite diagnosis requires confirmation by imaging modalities.
  • Ultrasound is the test of choice for diagnosis of intussusception. The appearance of target sign or doughnut sign usually around 3 cm in diameter, confirms the diagnosis.
  • The image seen on transverse sonography or computed tomography is a doughnut shape, created by the hyperechoic central core of bowel and mesentery surrounded by the hypoechoic outer edematous bowel.
  • In longitudinal imaging, intussusception may resemble a sandwich.

An abdominal x-ray may be indicated to check for intestinal obstruction. An air enema may be used for diagnosis, and the same procedure can be used for treatment.

CT scan is sometimes used to make a diagnosis, especially when the Ultrasound imaging remains doubtful. However, in young children, obtaining a CT scan often requires the use of anesthesia and there is also the risk of intravenous contrast and radiation exposure.

Treatment / Management

Intussusception is not usually immediately life-threatening. It is usually successfully treated with barium, water-soluble, or an air-contrast enema, which both confirms the diagnosis and successfully reduces it. The success rate is more than 80%. However, up to 10% may reoccur within 24 hours.[8][9][10][11]

Cases that cannot be reduced non-surgically require surgical reduction. In surgical reduction, the surgeon manually squeezes the part that has telescoped. If the surgeon cannot successfully reduce it, the affected section is surgically removed. The intussusception may also be reduced by laparoscopy, pulling the segments of intestine apart with forceps.

Differential Diagnosis

  • Abdominal hernias
  • Appendicitis
  • Blunt abdominal trauma in emergency medicine
  • Colic
  • Cycling vomiting syndrome
  • Emergent treatment of gastroenteritis
  • Gastric volvulus
  • Internal hernia
  • Testicular torsion
  • Volvulus

Pearls and Other Issues

Intussusception is a medical emergency if not treated early and may result in death if not reduced. In developing countries, death is almost inevitable.

The prognosis for intussusception is excellent if treated quickly, but if untreated it can lead to death within two to five days. The longer the intestine segment is prolapsed and the longer it goes without a blood supply, the less effective a non-surgical reduction. Prolonged intussusception increases bowel ischemia and necrosis, requiring surgical resection.

The differential diagnosis of intussusception includes acute gastroenteritis and rectal prolapse.

  • Abdominal pain, vomiting, and stool with blood and mucus occur in acute gastroenteritis, but diarrhea is the leading symptom.
  • In rectal prolapse expect projecting mucosa that can be felt in continuity with the perianal skin, whereas in intussusception, the finger may pass indefinitely into the depth of the sulcus.

It is important to note that air contrast enema is not used to treat adults with intussusception; adults tend to have a lead point or an organic lesion that is often the cause of the problem.

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

Intussusception is a surgical emergency. The disorder is managed by an interprofessional team that consists of a radiologist, pediatrician, emergency department physician, and a pediadritic surgeon. The majority of cases are reduced non-surgically and have a good outcome. Cases not reduced by air or barium need surgery. Usuallly no bowel resection is required. Complications are rare after surgery and recurrences are very rare.[12] (Level V) 

Article Details

Article Author

Shobhit Jain

Article Editor:

Micelle Haydel


7/17/2021 12:52:49 PM

PubMed Link:

Child Intussusception



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