What is intussusception?

Intussusception is a condition in which one segment of intestine "telescopes" inside of another, causing an intestinal obstruction (blockage). Although intussusception can occur anywhere in the gastrointestinal tract, it usually occurs at the junction of the small and large intestines. The obstruction can cause swelling and inflammation that can lead to intestinal injury.

The exact cause of intussusception is unknown. In most cases, it is preceded by a virus that produces swelling of the lining of the intestine, which then slips into the intestine below. In some children, it is caused by a condition that the child is born with, such as a polyp or diverticulum.

How common is intussusception?

Intussusception occurs most commonly between the ages of three and 36 months, but may appear at any age. It is seen in approximately one in 1,200 children, and more often in boys. Intussusception occurs most frequently in the fall and winter months during viral season, but can happen at any time of the year.

What are the symptoms of intussusception?

The main symptom of intussusception is severe, crampy abdominal pain alternating with periods of no pain. Painful episodes may last 10 to 15 minutes or longer, followed by periods of 20 to 30 minutes of no pain, after which the pain returns. After symptoms have been present for a while, some children may become lethargic (feel very tired). Small children may draw their knees up to their chest during the episodes of pain.

Other possible symptoms of intussusception include:

  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Rectal bleeding (red jelly-like stools), sometimes mixed with mucus.

These symptoms begin suddenly, usually one week after a non-specific viral illness.

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