Encopresis is an elimination disorder that involves repeatedly having bowel movements in inappropriate places after the age when bowel control is normally expected. Encopresis is also called "soiling" or "fecal incontinence."
By four years of age, most children are toilet trained for bowel movements. After that age, when inappropriate bowel movements occur regularly over a period of several months, a child may be diagnosed with encopresis. Encopresis can be intentional on unintentional. Intentional soiling is associated with several psychiatric disorders. Involuntary or unintentional soiling is often the result of constipation.
Causes and symptoms
The only symptom of encopresis is that a person has bowel movements in inappropriate places, such as in clothing or on the floor. This soiling is not caused by taking laxatives or other medications, and is not due to a disability or physical defect in the bowel. There are two main types of encopresis, and they have different causes.
With involuntary encopresis, a person has no control over elimination of feces from the bowel. The feces is semi-soft to almost liquid, and it leaks into clothing without the person making any effort to expel it. Leakage usually occurs during the day when the person is active, and ranges from infrequent or almost continuous.
Involuntary soiling usually results from constipation. A hard mass of feces develops in the large intestine and is not completely expelled during a regular bowel movement in the toilet. This mass then stretches the large intestine out of shape, allowing liquid feces behind it to leak out. Up to 95% of encopresis is involuntary.
Although involuntary encopresis, called by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) encopresis with constipation and overflow incontinence, is caused by constipation, the constipation may be the result of psychological factors. Experiencing a stressful life event, harsh toilet training, toilet fear, or emotionally disturbing events can cause a child to withhold bowel movements or become constipated. Historically, children separated from their parents during World War II are reported to have shown a high incidence of encopresis, indicating that psychological factors play a role in this disorder.
A person with voluntary encopresis has control over when and where bowel movements occur and chooses to have them in inappropriate places. Constipation is not a factor, and the feces is usually a normal consistency. Often feces is smeared in an obvious place, although sometimes it is hidden around the house. The APA classifies voluntary encopresis as encopresis without constipation and overflow incontinence.
In young children, voluntary encopresis may represent a power struggle between the child and the caregiver doing the toilet training. In older children, voluntary encopresis is often associated with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder , sexual abuse , or high levels of psychological stressors.
Encopresis occurs in 1–3% of children and is seen more often in boys than in girls. The frequency of encopresis appears to be independent of social class, and there is no evidence that it runs in families.
To receive an APA diagnosis of encopresis, a child must have a bowel movement, either intentional or accidental, in an inappropriate place at least once a month for a minimum of three months. In addition, the child must be chronologically or developmentally at least four years old, and the soiling cannot be caused by illness, medical conditions (such as chronic diarrhea, spina bifida, anal stenosis, etc.), medications, or disabilities. However, it may be caused by constipation.
Involuntary encopresis is treated by addressing the cause of the constipation and establishing soft, pain-free stools. This can include:
- increasing the amount of liquids a child drinks
- adding high-fiber foods to the diet
- short-term use of laxatives or stool softeners
- emptying the large intestine by using an enema
- establishing regular bowel habits
Once the constipation is resolved, involuntary encopresis normally stops.
Treatment of voluntary encopresis depends on the cause. When voluntary encopresis results from a power struggle between child and adult, it is treated with behavior modification . In addition to taking the steps listed above to ensure a soft, pain-free stool, the adult should make toileting a pleasant, pressure-free activity. Some experts suggest transferring the initiative for toileting to the child instead of constantly asking him/her to use the toilet. Others recommend toileting at scheduled times, but without pressure to perform. In either case, success should be praised and failure treated in a matter-of-fact manner. If opposition to using the toilet continues, the family may be referred to a child psychiatrist or a pediatric psychologist .
With older children who smear or hide feces, voluntary encopresis is usually a symptom of another more serious disorder. When children are successfully treated for the underlying disorder with psychiatric interventions, behavior modification, and education, the encopresis is often resolved.
Since 80–95% of encopresis is related to constipation, the success rate in resolving involuntary encopresis is high, although it may take time to establish good bowel habits and eliminate a reoccurrence of constipation. The success rate is also good for younger children in a power struggle with adults over toileting, although the results may be slow. The prognosis for older children with associated behavioral disorders is less promising and depends more on the success of resolving those problems than on direct treatment of the symptoms of encopresis.
Power struggles during toilet training that lead to encopresis can be reduced by waiting until the child is developmentally ready and interested in using the toilet. Toilet training undertaken kindly, calmly, and with realistic expectations is most likely to lead to success. Successes should be rewarded and failures accepted. Once toilet training has been established, encopresis can be reduced by developing regular bowel habits and encouraging a healthy, high-fiber diet.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4th ed. text revised. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2000.
Sadock, Benjamin J. and Virginia A. Sadock, eds. Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry. 7th ed. Vol. 2. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 2000.
Kuhn, Bret R., Bethany A. Marcus, and Sheryl L. Pitner. "Treatment Guidelines for Primary Nonretentive Encopresis and Stool Toileting Refusal." American Family Physician 58 (April 15, 1999): 8-18.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, P. O. Box 96106, Washington, D.C. 20090. (800) 333-7636. <www.aacap.org> .
Tish Davidson, A.M.