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Intussusception of the small bowel secondary to malignant metastases in two 80-year-old people: a case series
© Spiridis et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2011
Received: 14 January 2010
Accepted: 11 May 2011
Published: 11 May 2011
Small bowel intussusception is rare in adults and accounts for one percent of all bowel obstructions. Malignancy is the etiologic agent in approximately 50 percent of all cases.
Our first patient was an 80-year-old Caucasian woman with signs and symptoms of intermittent bowel obstruction for the last 12 months. Pre-operative investigation by abdominal computed tomography scanning revealed an obstruction at the ileocecal valve. Exploratory laparotomy revealed an ileocecal intussusception. She underwent an enterectomy. Histological examination showed metastatic breast cancer (lobular carcinoma). Our patient had previously undergone a mastectomy due to carcinoma three years earlier.
Our second patient was an 80-year-old Caucasian man with signs and symptoms of acute bowel obstruction. Pre-operative investigation by abdominal computed tomography scanning showed an intussusception in the proximal part of the small bowel. Exploratory laparotomy revealed a jejunojejunal intussusception. He underwent an enterectomy. Histological examination showed metastatic melanoma. Our patient had a prior history of a primary cutaneous melanoma which was excised two years ago.
Pre-operative determination of the etiologic agent of intussusception in the small bowel in adults is difficult. Although a computed tomography scan is very helpful, the diagnosis of intussusception is made by exploratory laparotomy and histological examination defines the etiologic agent. A prior malignancy in the patient's history must be taken under consideration as a possible cause of intussusception.
Intussusception is the most common (1.5-four cases per 1000 live births)  cause of small bowel obstruction and possible enteric ischemia in children but it is rare in adults. There are significant differences in regard to location, etiology, presentation and management of intussusception between adults and children. In adults, the small bowel is the most common location of intussusception and in 90% of cases the lead point is a benign or malignant tumor . Clinical presentation is variable and can be acute, intermittent or chronic, a fact that increases the difficulty of preoperative diagnosis .
The aim of this paper is to determine the difficulties and problems of a precise pre-operative diagnosis and the management of intussusception in adults. We describe two cases of intussusception secondary to malignant metastases.
An 80-year-old Caucasian woman was admitted to our department with acute abdomen. She presented with abdominal pain, no passage of flatus or stool, and vomiting. In the last year she had three episodes of intermittent bowel obstruction and a weight loss of 22 kilograms, for which she was treated conservatively. Our patient had undergone a left mastectomy for lobular carcinoma of the breast three years ago. She had no history of previous abdominal operations. During the last year she presented with bone metastases (diagnosed by bone scintigraphy, which was negative for abdominal disease) and she was under continuous administration of letrozole and zoledronic acid.
Barbette  was the first person to refer to intussusception in 1674. The first successful operation to a child with intussusception was carried out in 1871 by Sir Jonathan Hutchinson . More than a century before this incident, Cornelius Henrik Velse operated on an adult with a similar problem which is described in "mutuo intestinorum ingressu" . More details were given in 1789 by John Hunter. Hunter described three incidents, one regarding a child of nine months and two probably regarding adults, although age is not mentioned .
Intussusception in adults is an uncommon situation that represents 5% of the total incidents of intussusception and constitutes the cause for 1% of intestinal obstructions . The usual initial clinical signs are those of bowel obstruction while the diagnosis, in contrast with children, is difficult and in almost 50% of the cases it is established intra-operatively . In a simple abdominal radiograph the findings are not disease-specific, and in the radiological examination with barium (provided that the state of health of the patient allows it) the characteristic image of a corkscrew is seen. Ultrasound examination provides minimal help in adult cases, whereas it is an important diagnostic aid in children. A CT scan of the abdomen is perhaps the method with the highest diagnostic sensitivity. In transverse cuts it shows a "target" or "doughnut" sign while in the oblong cuts it shows the image of a pitchfork [6, 7]. The two patients presented in our paper arrived at the hospital with bowel obstruction and in the first case the diagnosis of intussusception was established intra-operatively, while in the second case the diagnosis was based on abdominal CT findings.
Thus, in 50% of intussusception cases in adults, the causes are benign lesions such as fibromas, lipomas, adenomas and Meckel's diverticula [2, 8, 9]. In the remaining 50% the causes are primary tumor metastases to the gastrointestinal tract, especially melanoma which has two predominant forms in the intestine. The most common form is that of multiple sub-mucosal implants. These nodules tend to extend intraluminally as they grow, leading to gradual obstruction of the bowel lumen. Such lesions often ulcerate, resulting in occult or acute blood loss . The other, less common, lesion is polypoid and often serves as the lead point for intussusception [6, 9]. Regarding our second patient, the sub-mucosal implants caused intussusception when they increased in size. Metastatic breast cancer is the second most frequent malignant cause of intussusception in adults, demonstrating usually the histological type of lobular carcinoma and located in the colon and in the rectum [10–13]. In our first patient, the cause was metastatic invasive lobular carcinoma of the breast in the ileum, a condition which, to the best of our knowledge, has not been previously reported in the literature. Although there is no consensus regarding the "proper" treatment of intussusception in adult patients, there is total agreement regarding the need of laparotomy . If the cause is a tumor-like lesion, resection of the affected part of the intestine and an end-to-end anastomosis are required [15–17]. This therapeutic approach was followed in our two patients during laparotomy.
The pre-operative diagnosis of the cause of small bowel intussusception is difficult in adults. Although abdominal CT scanning provides the most reliable indications, it is laparotomy that establishes the diagnosis of intussusception, and the histological examination that determines the cause. A history of prior malignancy should result in the suspicion of a metastasis as a possible cause of intussusception.
Written informed consent was obtained from both patients for publication of this case report and any accompanying images. Copies of the written consent are available for review by the Editor-in-Chief of this journal.
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