Hirschsprung Disease in Children
What is Hirschsprung disease in children?
Hirschsprung disease is a rare birth defect. It affects the nerve cells in the large intestine. These nerve cells control the muscles that move food and waste, or stool, through the large intestine. The large intestine is the last part of the digestive tract.
Babies with Hirschsprung disease are missing nerve cells in all or part of the large intestine. It starts in the rectum. In most cases, only the end parts of the colon, the rectum and sigmoid colon, are affected. But it can affect more of the large intestine. Without these nerve cells, the muscles can’t move food and waste through that part of the large intestine. Stool can’t move forward. It stays in the large intestine.
The intestine can become partly or fully blocked. It begins to grow larger than normal. This can cause constipation, swelling, pain, and infection.
What causes Hirschsprung disease in a child?
During pregnancy, a baby’s nerve cells form along the intestines. They begin in the mouth and end in the anus. In babies with Hirschsprung disease, the nerve cells don’t grow past a certain part of the large intestine. Experts don’t know why this happens.
Which children are at risk for Hirschsprung disease?
A child is more at risk for Hirschsprung disease if there is a family history of the disorder. Some genetic syndromes, such as Down syndrome, are also linked with the disorder.
Boys are more likely to have Hirschsprung disease than girls.
What are the symptoms of Hirschsprung disease in a child?
Most babies with Hirschsprung disease have symptoms in the first few weeks of life. In some cases, only a short part of the intestine may be affected. Then symptoms may not be seen for a few months or years.
Each child’s symptoms may vary. Symptoms in newborns may include:
- Not having a bowel movement in the first 48 hours of life
- Slow swelling or bloating of the belly
- Vomiting green or brown fluid
Children who don’t show early symptoms may also have:
- Constipation that gets worse over time
- Loss of appetite
- Slow or delayed growth
- Small, watery, bloody stools
- Loss of energy
Symptoms of Hirschsprung disease may seem like other health problems. See your child's healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
How is Hirschsprung disease diagnosed in a child?
Your child’s healthcare provider will do an exam and take a health history. The provider will ask questions about constipation and bowel movements. Other tests may be done to find out if your child has Hirschsprung disease. These tests may include:
- Abdominal X-ray. This test may show a lack of stool in the large intestine or near the anus. It can also show if part of the large intestine is bulging. The bulging is caused by blocked stool.
- Barium enema. This X-ray exam checks the large intestine for any problems. Your child is given a metallic fluid called barium. Barium coats the organs so they can be seen on an X-ray. The barium is put into a tube and inserted into your child’s rectum as an enema. An X-ray of the belly will show any narrowed areas or any blockages. It will also show if the intestine is bulging above a blockage.
- Anorectal manometry. This test is most often used for older children. A small tube is put into the rectum to check how well the rectal muscles are working. If the muscles don't relax, it may be a sign of Hirschsprung disease.
- Biopsy of the rectum or large intestine. A tiny piece of the large intestine is removed. It is checked under a microscope to see if any nerve cells are missing.
How is Hirschsprung disease treated in a child?
Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.
Hirschsprung disease is treated with surgery called a pull-through procedure. A surgeon removes the part of the large intestine that lacks nerve cells. When possible, the healthy part that is left is connected to the anal opening. Often, the surgery can be done through small incisions (laparoscopy), and only 1 surgery may be needed.
In some cases, surgery may be done in 2 stages. A child who is very sick from Hirschsprung disease may first need ostomy surgery. This can help the child heal before the pull-through surgery. With ostomy surgery, the diseased part of the large intestine is removed. The end of the healthy intestine is moved to an opening made in the belly. This opening is called a stoma. Stool passes through the stoma and into a bag worn outside the body. The bag must be emptied several times a day.
An ostomy may be short-term, or temporary. Or it may be permanent. It depends on how much of the intestine must be removed. If it is short-term, the surgeon will connect the healed intestine to the anus and sew the stoma (opening) closed.
In most cases, the ostomy is temporary. But sometimes children with Hirschsprung disease must have a permanent ostomy. Infants will feel better after ostomy surgery because they will be able to pass gas and stool easily.
While older children will feel better as well, they must adjust to living with a permanent ostomy. This means learning how to take care of the stoma and how to change the ostomy pouch. Living with an ostomy can be very hard for the child and the caretaker. A special nurse, called an ostomy nurse, can help you and your child learn how to care for the ostomy. The nurse can also provide education, demonstrations on ostomy care, problem-solving help, community resources, emotional support, and encouragement.
In very specific instances, where the affected part of the intestine is extremely short, surgery may not be needed.
What are possible complications of Hirschsprung disease in a child?
In Hirschsprung disease, a part of the large intestine lacks normal nerve cells. This means that digested food and stool can’t move forward through that part of the digestive tract. The large intestine becomes blocked with stool. Your baby will be constipated, or unable to have normal bowel movements.
The blockage creates pressure on the inside of the intestine. This causes part of the intestinal wall to wear thin. Over time, a bacterial infection called enterocolitis can develop in the digestive tract. This is very serious. Symptoms of enterocolitis include:
- Swollen belly
- Belly pain
- Bleeding from the rectum
- Lack of energy
Call your child’s healthcare provider right away if your child has any signs of enterocolitis.
How can I help my child live with Hirschsprung disease?
Your child’s bowel function may be affected after surgery. The most common long-term problems include bowel control and leaking stool, constipation, and infections.
Problems that may occur after surgery depend on how much of the intestine lacked nerve cells and how much of it was removed.
Children who are able to have their ostomy closed may have short-term problems after the closure, including:
- Stools may be frequent and loose at first. To prevent skin irritation, try cleaning the anal area carefully to remove stool. Also try using diaper rash creams or lotions.
- Children may have trouble sensing the need to have a bowel movement. The urge to have a bowel movement is greater after eating. It may help to have your child spend 10 minutes after meals on the toilet.
- Some children have problems with bowel movements because the anal opening is tight. A special method called rectal dilation may help. Your child's healthcare provider can teach you this method if it’s right for your child.
Children who had a large part of the intestine removed may have long-term problems. The digestive process can be affected. Nutrients and fluids are absorbed from food in the small intestine. Removing a large segment of the intestine can prevent a child from getting enough nutrients and fluids. Children can have problems with poor digestion, slow growth, and infection. Your child may need to eat and drink more to get enough nutrients and fluid.
Talk with your child’s healthcare provider about your child’s specific situation.
When should I call my child's healthcare provider?
Call your child's healthcare provider if your newborn doesn’t have a bowel movement in the first 48 hours of life.
Call the provider if your infant or child has any of these symptoms:
- Bowel movements are not regular
- Increasing constipation
If your child has had surgery for Hirschsprung disease, call the provider if your child has:
- Belly pain
- Swollen belly or abdomen
- Rectal bleeding
Caring for a child with Hirschsprung disease can be emotionally and physically exhausting. If you are struggling, ask your healthcare provider about home care support or community-based support groups or resources.
Key points about Hirschsprung disease in children
- Hirschsprung disease is a rare birth defect. It affects the nerve cells in the large intestine.
- Children with this disorder are missing nerve cells in all or part of the large intestine.
- Without these nerve cells, stool can’t move forward through the large intestine. This can cause constipation, swelling, pain, and infection.
- Most children with Hirschsprung disease show symptoms in the first few weeks of life.
- Hirschsprung disease is treated with surgery.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:
- Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.
- Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
- At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
- Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.
- Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.
- Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
- Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
- If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
- Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.