The first sign of intussusception in an otherwise healthy infant may be sudden, loud crying caused by abdominal pain. Infants who have abdominal pain may pull their knees to their chests when they cry. The pain of intussusception comes and goes, usually every 15 to 20 minutes at first. These painful episodes last longer and happen more often as time passes.
Other frequent signs and symptoms of intussusception include:
- Stool mixed with blood and mucus (sometimes referred to as "currant jelly" stool because of its appearance)
- A lump in the abdomen
Less common signs and symptoms include:
Some infants have no obvious pain, don't pass blood or have a lump in the abdomen. Some older children have pain but no other symptoms.
Because intussusception is rare in adults and symptoms of the disorder are often nonspecific, it is more challenging to identify. Abdominal pain is the most common symptom, followed by nausea and vomiting and diarrhea. A significant percentage of people have no signs and symptoms.
When to see a doctor
Intussusception requires emergency medical care. If you or your child develops the signs or symptoms listed above, seek medical help right away.
In infants, remember that signs of abdominal pain may include recurrent bouts of pulling the knees to the chest and crying.
Your intestine is shaped like a long tube. In intussusception, one part of your intestine — usually the small intestine — slides inside an adjacent part. This is sometimes called telescoping because it's similar to the way a collapsible telescope folds together.
In some cases, the telescoping is caused by an abnormal growth in the intestine, such as a polyp or a tumor (called a lead point). The normal wave-like contractions of the intestine grab this lead point and pull it and the lining of the intestine into the bowel ahead of it. In most cases, however, no cause can be identified for intussusception.
In the vast majority of cases of intussusception in children, the cause is unknown. Because intussusception seems to occur more often in the fall and winter and because many children with the problem also have flu-like symptoms, some suspect a virus may play a role in the condition. In a few instances, a lead point is identified as the cause of the condition — most frequently Meckel's diverticulum (a pouch in the lining of the small intestine).
In adults, intussusception is usually the result of a medical condition, such as:
- A tumor
- Scar-like tissue in the intestine (adhesions)
- Surgical scars in the small intestine or colon
- Inflammation, such as from Crohn's disease
Risk factors for intussusception include:
- Age. Children are much more likely to develop intussusception than adults are. It's the most common cause of bowel obstruction in children between the ages of 6 months and 3 years.
- Sex. Intussusception more often affects boys.
- Abnormal intestinal formation at birth. A condition present at birth (congenital) in which the intestine doesn't develop correctly (malrotation) also is a risk factor for intussusception.
- A prior history of intussusception. Once you've had intussusception, you're at increased risk to develop it again.
- AIDS. There issome evidence of an increased incidence of intussusception in people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
Intussusception can cut off the blood supply to the affected portion of the intestine. If left untreated, lack of blood causes tissue of the intestinal wall to die. Tissue death can lead to a tear (perforation) in the intestinal wall, which can cause an infection of the lining of the abdominal cavity (peritonitis).
Peritonitis is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention. Signs and symptoms of peritonitis include:
- Abdominal pain
- Abdominal swelling
- Low urine output
Peritonitis may cause your child to go into shock. Signs and symptoms of shock include:
- Cool, clammy skin that may be pale or gray
- A weak and rapid pulse
- Abnormal breathing that may be either slow and shallow or very rapid
- Lackluster eyes that seem to stare blankly
- Profound listlessness
A child who is in shock may be conscious or unconscious. If you suspect your child is in shock, seek emergency medical care right away.