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What is intussusception?

Intussusception occurs when one portion of the intestine folds in on itself, much like a collapsing telescope, and puts pressure on another part of the intestine.

The main symptom is sudden, severe abdominal pain. The pain comes and goes and lasts seconds to minutes. The waves of pain occur every 5 to 15 minutes. During attacks of pain the child will cry or scream. Between attacks of pain the child may appear to be well or be very quiet and less active than usual.

Other possible symptoms, in addition to pain, are:

  • vomiting
  • bloody stools
  • pale skin.

Intussusception is most common between 6 months and 2 years of age, but it can occur at any age.

What is the cause?

The exact cause of intussusception is not known. It sometimes happens when a child has a cold or other viral illness associated with swollen glands in the abdomen. There are glands located in the wall of the intestine and swelling of these glands can cause the bowel to telescope.

When the bowel telescopes, there is less blood flow to the intestine because it is under increased pressure. The decreased blood flow causes pain and sometimes bloody stools. The intestine can also become blocked, which can cause the child to vomit.

How is it diagnosed?

The doctor will ask a few questions about your child's medical history and recent symptoms. An x-ray may be taken to help make the diagnosis.

What is the treatment?

Your child will be given treatment in the emergency department or admitted to the hospital for treatment.

  • Rehydration

    If your child's bowel is blocked, it may be difficult for your child to absorb fluids. Your child may be given some fluids intravenously (through a vein). Your child may also have a tube placed through the nose down into the stomach to help control vomiting.

  • Air enema

    The most important part of the treatment is getting your child's intestines back to their usual position. This can often be done by giving the child a special x-ray test called an air enema.

    During an enema a tube is put into the child's rectum. Air is passed through the tube while a technician takes several x-rays. This test does two things. It helps the doctor see what is wrong by showing an x-ray picture of exactly where the problem is in your child's intestine. It also treats the illness because the air from the enema gently forces the telescoped part of the child's bowel back to where it belongs.

    The enema should take about only 10 minutes. During the test your child may feel some cramping pain.

    If the enema is successful, your child will probably not need further treatment. Your child will be observed for a short period of time in the hospital to make sure he can keep fluids down.

  • Surgery

    If the enema is not successful in fixing the problem, or if your child is extremely unwell because of the intussusception, your child will need surgery. During the operation the surgeon will gently unfold the telescoped bowel and return everything to its normal position. There is a risk that a piece of the intestine will have to be removed during surgery.

How can I help take care of my child?

Once your child has been treated and discharged, there are no specific things that you have to do at home. Your child may eat and drink normally and should be encouraged to return to his or her usual level of activity. Although intussusception happens again in only 5% to 10% of all cases, it is important to watch for the return of any of the symptoms. Almost half of all recurrences happen in the first 48 hours.

When should I call the doctor?


  • Your child begins to have abdominal pain that comes and goes.
  • Your child vomits.
  • Your child becomes extremely lethargic (sluggish).
  • Your child passes any bloody stools.
  • Your child starts to act very sick.

Call during office hours if:

  • You have other questions or concerns.
Written by the Section of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, The Children's Hospital, Denver.
Published by McKesson Provider Technologies.
Last modified: 2005-09-01
Last reviewed: 2006-10-19
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright 2006 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved.
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