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Intussusception is a rare medical condition where one part of the small intestine invaginates, or draws back, into another part of the intestine. A common visual example of this is the way a telescope’s pieces slide into each other. Intussusception literally means blockage of the intestine. The area of the intestine that draws back is called the intussusceptum, and the part that receives it is the intussuscipien.
Intussuception is a serious emergency that requires immediate treatment. When the intussusceptum recedes into the intussuscipien, the associated nerves and tissue are dragged along too. The veins are compressed, which causes the area to swell and reduce its blood supply. If left untreated, a blockage in the intestine can cause that part of the intestine to develop gangrene and die. It may also rupture, which will lead to abdominal infection and shock. Without swift treatment, the condition may progress so far that surgical removal of the bowel may be necessary.
The causes for intussusception are largely unknown. It occurs most often in small children between the ages of five months and one year old. There are some theories that intestinal viral or bacterial infections contribute to its development in children. Although intussusception may occur in older children or adults, these are some extremely rare cases. In these cases, tumors or polyps may be a contributing factor the development of the blockage.
Observing symptoms can be difficult in the young patients that the intussusception normally affects. The main symptom of intussusceptions is intermittent cramping or abdominal pain. Infants will cry as if in sharp pain, and may draw their knees up the chest at intervals with the pain. Yellow and green vomit not associated with eating is another sign. If the patient also has currant jelly stool, or stool mixed with blood and mucus, this can be a sign that some portions of intestine are already dead.
Diagnosis of intussusception is usually done after the above symptoms are observed. The doctor will then perform a thorough abdominal examination. He may be able to feel the actual intussusception as a sausage-shaped mass in the abdomen. If the doctor requires a second confirmation, x-rays are sometimes done to view the obstruction.
If intussusception is diagnosed early enough, it may be treated with an enema. This is only possible if the intestine has not already ruptured, and the enema still carries the risk that it may rupture an intestine that hasn’t already done so. If the obstruction can’t be reversed with the enema, the next option is surgery. Any portions of the intestine that aren’t viable will be removed. After surgery, the patient will be fed intravenously until the surgical area is healed.