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Pediatric Intussusception Surgery

  • Author: Michael S Irish, MD; Chief Editor: Harsh Grewal, MD, FACS, FAAP  more...
Updated: May 13, 2015


Intussusception, which is defined as the telescoping or invagination of a proximal portion of intestine (intussusceptum) into a more distal portion (intussuscipiens), is one of the most common causes of bowel obstruction in infants and toddlers.

Intussusception was first described by Barbette in 1674, and it was first successfully treated surgically by Wilson in 1831. In 1876, Hirschsprung first reported the technique of hydrostatic reduction,[1] and in 1905, after monitoring a series of 107 cases, he reported a 35% mortality attributable to intussusception.

Vascular compromise and subsequent bowel necrosis are the primary concerns with intussusception. Among patients who undergo operative reduction of intussusception, as many as 10% may require bowel resection.




The incidence of intussusception is 1.5-4 cases per 1000 live births, with a male-to-female ratio of 3:2. The highest incidence of idiopathic intussusception is in infants aged 9-24 months. A seasonal incidence has been described, with peaks in the spring, summer, and the middle of winter. These periods correspond to peaks in the occurrence of seasonal gastroenteritis and upper respiratory tract infections.



Intussusception is ileocolic (see the first image below) in 80% of cases but may also be ileoileal (see the second image below), colocolic, or ileoileocolic. Most infants and toddlers (95%) with the condition do not have an identifiable specific lead point. In these idiopathic cases, careful examination may reveal hypertrophied mural lymphoid tissues (Peyer patches), which are due to adenovirus or rotavirus infection. Intussusception has also been found to increase the risk of tonsillar disease (ie, chronic or acute tonsillitis) and tonsillectomy in children.[2]

Diagram illustrating the anatomy of intussusceptio Diagram illustrating the anatomy of intussusception.
Intraoperative appearance of ileocolic intussuscep Intraoperative appearance of ileocolic intussusception.

A specific lead point that draws the proximal intestine and its mesentery inward and propagates it distally through peristalsis is identified in only 5% of cases and is most commonly found in cases of ileoileal intussusception. Specific lead points are more commonly found in children older than 3 years and almost always in adults with intussusception. Meckel diverticulum (see the image below) is the most common lead point, followed by polyps, such as are seen with Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, and intestinal duplications.[3]

Intraoperative appearance of ileocolic intussuscep Intraoperative appearance of ileocolic intussusception due to Meckel diverticulum.

Other lead points described include lymphomas, lymphangiectasias,[4] submucosal hemorrhage with Henoch-Schönlein purpura, trichobezoars with Rapunzel syndrome,[5] caseating granulomas due to abdominal tuberculosis,[6] hemangiomas, and lymphosarcomas.

Children with cystic fibrosis (CF) may present with intussusception due to inspissated meconium in the terminal ileum. Although intussusception is generally observed as a complication in older children with CF, neonatal intussusception with meconium plug syndrome associated with CF has been reported.

Postoperative jejunoileal or ileoileal intussusception, which has no specific lead point in most cases, accounts for approximately 1% of intussusceptions in children of all ages.[7] When a lead point is present with postoperative intussusception, several cases have been reported after appendectomy with stump inversion.[8] Other rare reported types of intussusception include retrograde jejunojejunal intussusception following duodenal atresia repair[9] and an ileoileal type resulting from blunt abdominal trauma.[10]

Although the vast majority of intussusception cases are idiopathic, Oshio et al in Japan reported a familial anatomic tendency that may predispose to the condition in the face of viral infection. Of 554 families who had at furthest a third-degree relative with an idiopathic case of intussusception, the authors found an incidence of approximately 7%, or 1 per 14.2 cases. The family history may help in the workup, and further genetic testing may eventually identify the gene responsible for this predisposition.[11]



Intussusception results in bowel obstruction, followed by congestion and edema with venous and lymphatic obstruction. This progresses to arterial obstruction and subsequent necrosis of the bowel. Ischemia and then necrosis results in fluid sequestration and bleeding from the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. If untreated, the bowel may perforate, resulting in sepsis.



In 1941, Ladd and Gross described the deceptively healthy appearance of infants with intussusception.[12] One rarely finds intussusception in a child who is thin, undernourished, and poorly developed. This is evident in that babies with intussusception are usually well nourished and generally above average in physical development.

This fat and healthy appearance is apt to mislead the physician in the early hours of the patient’s illness. Thus, the first visit may leave the physician with the impression that the parent is overanxious, whereas a return visit the next day shows that the child is desperately ill.

Disorders characterized by bowel obstruction, colicky abdominal pain, blood in the stool, an intra-abdominal mass, or a combination of these should be considered in the differential diagnoses of intussusception. These include gastroenteritis, appendicitis, Meckel diverticulum, malrotation with midgut volvulus, or incarcerated hernia.

Most infants with intussusception have a history of intermittent severe cramping or colicky abdominal pain, occurring every 5-30 minutes. During these attacks, the infant screams and flexes at the waist, draws the legs up to the abdomen, and may appear pale. These episodes may last for only a few seconds and are separated by periods of calm normal appearance and activity. However, some infants become quite lethargic and somnolent between attacks.

Early on, the infant may vomit undigested food. As attacks continue, emesis may turn bilious. Stool that appear normal in character early in the course of the illness eventually become dark red and mucoid (resembling currant jelly), a sign of intestinal ischemia and mucosal sloughing.

Ideally, the dramatic paroxysms described above would sufficiently alert the parents to seek medical attention early in the course of the illness. If this is the case, initial inspection may reveal a robust infant who appears healthy. Between attacks, the infant may appear somnolent or quite normal, and findings on examination of the abdomen may be unremarkable. During an attack or spasm, the infant suddenly appears startled or anxious and begins to scream.

Upon initial inspection, the abdomen may appear scaphoid; during paroxysms, it may be rigid; and later in the course of the illness, it may become distended with signs of peritonitis. Careful palpation after an attack has subsided may reveal an ill-defined or sausage-shaped mass.

With early ileocolic intussusception, the mass is typically found in the right upper quadrant or abdomen. The right lower quadrant may seem empty upon examination, a finding known as the Dance sign. This mass may be difficult to locate in inconsolable infants because of abdominal rigidity from muscle straining. If episodes of cramping are witnessed, the careful examiner may auscultate peristaltic rushes in the area of the intussusception.

The rectal examination should commence with inspection of fecal material in the diaper. Normal-appearing stool should be tested for occult blood. The presence of mucoid or frankly bloody stool supports the diagnosis. Rarely, inspection of the anus reveals the prolapsed tip of the intussusception. A digital rectal examination should be performed routinely, looking for blood or a mass higher in the anal canal.

In lieu of concerns about rotavirus vaccine–associated intussusception, the Brighton Collaboration Intussusception Working Group established a clinical diagnosis using a mix of major and minor criteria. This stratification helps to devise a working model based on three levels of evidence to suggest definite, probable, and possible cases of intussusception.[13]

Major criteria for the clinical diagnosis of intussusception are as follows:

  • Evidence of intestinal obstruction - This criterion consists of a history of bile-stained emesis, along with abdominal distention or abnormal or absent bowel sounds
  • Features of intestinal invagination - This criterion includes at least one of three key findings—abdominal mass, rectal mass, or rectal prolapse—as well as an abdominal radiograph, sonogram, or computed tomography (CT) scan showing visible intussusceptum or a soft-tissue mass
  • Evidence of intestinal vascular compromise or venous congestion - This criterion manifests as rectal bleeding or “red currant jelly” stool or blood on rectal examination

Minor criteria include the following:

  • Male infants younger than 1 year
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Lethargy
  • Pallor
  • Hypovolemic shock
  • Abdominal radiograph showing nonspecific abnormality

The likelihood of the diagnosis is stratified on the basis of evidence levels.

level 1 (definite) includes any one of the following:

  • Surgical criteria - Invagination of intestine found during surgery
  • Radiologic criteria - Gas or liquid contrast enema showing invagination or abdominal sonogram with specific features proven to be reduced by enema on postreduction sonogram
  • Autopsy criteria - Invagination of the intestine

level 2 (probable) includes either of the following:

  • Two major criteria (see above)
  • One major criterion and three minor criteria (see above)

level 3 (possible) includes the following:

  • Four or more minor criteria (see above)

The relevance of this definition has been clinically tested in Switzerland, where it correctly identified 86 of 96 confirmed episodes, 82 of which met level 1 evidence. Regarding sensitivity in comparison to this level 1 evidence, level 2 (probable) had a sensitivity of 65%, whereas level 3 (possible) had only 30%.[14]

A 2011 prospective study by Weihmiller et al focused on establishing predictive clinical criteria to risk stratify patients while performing a workup for intussusception.[15] The three strongest clinical predictors for high risk were as follows:

  • Male sex ( P = .007)
  • Age >5 months ( P = .04)
  • Report of lethargy ( P = .001)

If a patient is older than 5 months, then he or she may be considered low-risk if the abdominal radiograph is negative and there is diarrhea with no bilious emesis.

This study also recommended plain abdominal radiographs for all patients suspected of having intussusception.[15] An abnormal abdominal plain film had a P value of .0001. Their definitions for an abdominal radiographs were classified as either (a) negative, with no intussusception suspected, or (b) positive or possibly positive for intussusception, which led to more testing using either ultrasonography or air enema.

Of note, this study identified 38 intussusceptions out of 310 pediatric patients and did not find abdominal pain, abdominal mass, or guaiac-positive stools to be significant.[15] However, these clinical findings are classic for intussusception on the basis of prior research; therefore, the presence of these symptoms and signs should still raise clinical suspicion for intussusception.

In a study of 379 patients, Fallon et al concluded that significant predictors for operative treatment included abdominal symptoms for more than 2 days, age younger than 1 year, multiple ultrasonography findings, and failure of initial enema reduction.[16]

In a 7-year multicenter retrospective study of intussusception in 153 pediatric patients aged 12 years or younger, Banapour et al found that children older than 5 years were significantly more likely to have a pathologic lead point, which suggested that early surgical intervention should be considered.[17] In this age group, enema reduction, though safe, yielded only minimal benefit.



Stable patients in whom the index of suspicion for intussusception is high but who do not have evidence of ischemic bowel, perforation, or sepsis may undergo immediate contrast enema for diagnosis and treatment of suspected intussusception.

Immediate surgery is indicated for unstable patients, patients who have peritonitis, and patients with bowel perforation during attempted enema reduction. Elevated temperature and white blood cell (WBC) counts have also served as relative indicators for surgery. Patients requiring surgery must be aggressively resuscitated with fluids, and care must be taken to preserve body temperature preoperatively, intraoperatively, and postoperatively.


Relevant Anatomy

Intussusception is the telescoping or invagination of a proximal portion of intestine into a more distal portion. Intussusception may be ileoileal, colocolic, ileoileocolic, or ileocolic (the most common type; see the image below).

Diagram illustrating the anatomy of intussusceptio Diagram illustrating the anatomy of intussusception.

The primary concern with intussusception is vascular compromise with subsequent bowel necrosis. In addition to bowel obstruction, edema with venous obstruction and eventual obstruction of arterial flow leads to ischemia and eventual full-thickness necrosis of the intussuscepted bowel and mesentery.



Contraindications to enema reduction include evidence of bowel perforation and peritonitis.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Michael S Irish, MD Adjunct Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Surgery, University of Iowa, Roy J and Lucille A Carver College of Medicine; Consulting Pediatric Surgeon, Department of Pediatric Surgery, Blank Children's Hospital and Children's Hospital Physicians Group

Michael S Irish, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Sigma Xi, International Pediatric Endosurgery Group

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Philip M Bovet, MPH, DO, FACOFP Consulting Physician, Aspirus Clinics, Inc

Philip M Bovet, MPH, DO, FACOFP is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Family Physicians, American Medical Association, American Osteopathic Association, Wisconsin Medical Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Jason K Shellnut, MD Staff Physician, Department of Surgery, Iowa Methodist Hospital

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Mary L Windle, PharmD Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Deborah F Billmire, MD Associate Professor, Department of Surgery, Indiana University Medical Center

Deborah F Billmire, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Surgeons, American Pediatric Surgical Association, Phi Beta Kappa, Society of Critical Care Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Harsh Grewal, MD, FACS, FAAP Professor of Surgery, Cooper Medical School of Rowan University; Chief, Division of Pediatric Surgery, Cooper University Hospital

Harsh Grewal, MD, FACS, FAAP is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Surgeons, American Pediatric Surgical Association, Association for Surgical Education, Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons, Society of Laparoendoscopic Surgeons, Southwestern Surgical Congress, Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma, Children's Oncology Group, International Pediatric Endosurgery Group

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Rebeccah Brown, MD Associate Director of Trauma Services, Associate Professor, Department of Clinical Surgery and Pediatrics, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and University of Cincinnati Hospital

Rebeccah Brown, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Surgeons, American Medical Association, American Medical Womens Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Diagram illustrating the anatomy of intussusception.
Intraoperative appearance of ileoileal intussusception.
Intraoperative appearance of ileocolic intussusception.
Intraoperative appearance of ileocolic intussusception due to Meckel diverticulum.
This is an abdominal plain radiograph of a 14-week-old patient with intussusception. Note the nonspecific appearance of bowel obstruction.
Transverse ultrasonographic view (target sign) of intussusception.
Longitudinal ultrasonographic view (pseudo-kidney sign) of intussusception.
Appearance of intussusception on CT scan.
This ileocolic intussusception is observed using air-contrast enema. Intussusception has been reduced to the level of the cecum.
This ileocolic intussusception is observed using barium contrast enema. Intussusception has been reduced to the level of the proximal transverse colon.
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