Thumbnail image of: Digestive System: Illustration

Hirschsprung’s Disease

What is Hirschsprung’s disease?

Hirschsprung’s disease is an illness that children are born with that prevents them from having a normal bowel movement.

Squeezing of the muscles in the gut helps move digested food through the intestines. The squeezing of the muscles is triggered by nerves. Hirschsprung’s disease is a problem that happens when some of the nerves are missing. Without the nerves, the muscles cannot move digested food through the intestine, so the intestine gets blocked. This can make it hard for your child to pass bowel movements (constipation).

Hirschsprung’s disease may affect only the area near your child’s rectum, or it may affect a larger section of the large intestine.

What is the cause?

Before birth, a child’s nerve cells normally grow along the intestines toward the anus. When a child has Hirschsprung’s disease, the nerve cells stop growing too soon. Why the nerve cells stop growing is not known.

Sometimes Hirschsprung’s is inherited, which means that it’s passed from parents to children through their genes. Genes are inside each cell of your body. They contain the information that tells your body how to develop and work. This disease affects boys more often than girls.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms depend on how much of the intestine is involved. Symptoms may include:

  • Not being able to have a bowel movement within a few days after birth
  • Vomiting
  • A lot of gas
  • Swollen belly
  • Diarrhea, which may be forceful
  • Poor growth and trouble gaining weight because this disease can keep nutrients from being absorbed by the body

If your child has a mild case of Hirschsprung’s, symptoms may not start until your child is older. In addition to some of the symptoms listed above, older children may have constipation that gets worse over time.

How is it diagnosed?

Your child’s healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and medical history and examine your child. Tests may include:

  • Rectal exam, which your child’s provider does by gently putting a lubricated and gloved finger in your child’s rectum to check the intestines
  • X-ray of the belly to show the general size and shape of the intestines and to check for constipation
  • Barium enema, which is an X-ray taken of the belly after barium is inserted through the rectum to show the walls of the intestine. Barium is a liquid that helps the intestines show up well on the X-ray.
  • Tests to check the strength of the anal and rectal muscles
  • A rectal biopsy, which is the removal of a small sample of tissue from the rectum for testing

How is it treated?

Hirschsprung’s disease is treated with surgery to remove the part of the intestine that has no nerve cells. The healthy part of the intestine is then connected to your child’s anus. (The anus is the opening of the rectum where bowel movements leave the body.)

If your child is very sick at the time of diagnosis, your child may need a procedure called an ileostomy or colostomy for a few months to a year. These procedures are done to connect the healthy part of your child’s intestine to a new opening in the belly called a stoma. Your child’s bowel movements will empty through the opening and collect in a disposable bag outside the body. After your child heals, a second procedure may be done to connect the healthy intestine to the anus. The stoma will be closed during this procedure.

How can I take care of my child?

Your child’s surgeon and nurses will teach you how to care for your child. After surgery, you will need to care for your child’s incision area. If your child has stoma, you will also learn how to care for it. To help prevent infection and other problems, follow your healthcare provider’s directions carefully.

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your child’s provider. Ask your provider:

  • How and when you will hear your child’s test results
  • How long it will take for your child to recover
  • If there are activities your child should avoid and when your child can return to normal activities
  • How to take care of your child at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if your child has them

Make sure you know when your child should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2015-01-29
Last reviewed: 2015-01-29
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 ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

Patient Portal

myTuftsMed is our new online patient portal that provides you with access to your medical information in one place. MyTuftsMed can be accessed online or from your mobile device providing a convenient way to manage your health care needs from wherever you are.

With myTuftsMed, you can:

  1. View your health information including your medications, test results, scheduled appointments, medical bills even if you have multiple doctors in different locations.
  2. Make appointments at your convenience, complete pre-visit forms and medical questionnaires and find care or an emergency room.
  3. Connect with a doctor no matter where you are.
  4. Keep track of your children’s and family members’ medical care, view upcoming appointments, book visits and review test results.
  5. Check in on family members who need extra help, all from your private account.


Your privacy is important to us. Learn more about ourwebsite privacy policy. X