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Main article: fecal incontinence

Encopresis, from the Greek κοπρος (kopros, dung) is involuntary "fecal soiling" in children who have usually already been toilet trained. Children with encopresis often leak stool into their underwear.


The estimated prevalence of encopresis in 5-year-olds is ~1-3%. The disorder is thought to be more common in males than females, by a factor of 6 to 1.


Encopresis is commonly caused by constipation, by deliberate withholding of stool, by various physiological, psychological, or neurological disorders, or from surgery (a somewhat rare occurrence).

The colon normally removes excess water from feces. If the feces or stool remains in the colon too long due to deliberate or incidental constipation, so much water is removed that the stool becomes hard, and becomes painful for the child to expel in an ordinary bowel movement. A vicious cycle can develop, where the child may avoid moving his/her bowels in order to avoid the "expected" painful toilet episode. The hardened stool continues to build up and stretches the colon or rectum to the point where the normal sensations associated with impending bowel movements do not occur. Eventually, softer stool leaks around the blockage and cannot be withheld by the anus, resulting in soiling. The child typically has no control over these leakage accidents, and may not be able to feel that they have occurred or are about to occur due to the loss of sensation in the rectum.

It is commonly thought that it is caused by oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder, but recent studies show that this may not be the case. Encopresis is often caused by an inability to express repressed anger, for example, caused by the birth of a new baby, a tormenting sibling, or parents who argue openly and continually. Encopresis is also a symptom of child sexual abuse.[1] Apart from these psychological causes, other causes of functional constipation include anismus and other forms of obstructed defecation. In a randomized controlled study of 68 children with encopresis not responsive to treatment, 47% were found to also have anismus.[2]


The psychiatric (DSM-IV) diagnostic criteria for encopresis are:

  1. Repeated passage of feces into inappropriate places (e.g., clothing or floor) whether voluntary or unintentional
  2. At least one such event a month for at least 3 months
  3. Chronological age of at least 4 years (or equivalent developmental level)
  4. The behavior is not exclusively due to a physiological effect of a substance (e.g., laxatives) or a general medical condition, except through a mechanism involving constipation.

The DSM-IV recognizes two subtypes: with constipation and overflow incontinence, and without constipation and overflow incontinence. In the subtype with constipation, the feces are usually poorly formed and leakage is continuous, and occurs both during sleep and waking hours. In the type without constipation, the feces are usually well-formed, soiling is intermittent, and feces are usually deposited in a prominent location. This form may be associated with oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder, or may be the consequence of large anal insertions.


Many pediatricians will recommend the following 3-pronged approach to the treatment of encopresis associated with constipation:

  1. cleaning out
  2. using stool softening agents
  3. scheduled sitting times, typically after meals

The initial clean-out is achieved with enemas, laxatives, or both. Following that, enemas and laxatives are used daily to keep the stools soft and allow the stretched bowel to return to its normal size.

Next, the child must be taught to use the toilet regularly to retrain his/her body. It is recommended that a child be required to sit on the toilet at a regular time each day and 'try' to go for 10-15 minutes, usually soon (or immediately) after eating. Children are more likely to be able to expel a bowel movement right after eating. It is thought that creating a regular schedule of bathroom time will allow the child to achieve a proper elimination pattern.

Dietary changes are an important management element. Recommended changes to the diet in the case of constipation-caused encopresis include:

  1. reduction in the intake of constipating foods such as dairy, peanuts, cooked carrots, and bananas;
  2. increase in high-fibre foods such as bran, whole wheat products, and fruits and vegetables; and
  3. higher intake of liquids, such as juices, although an increased risk of diabetes and/or tooth decay has been attributed to excess intake of sweetened juices.

Unless there are immediate, satisfactory results from the above, some practitioners recommend keeping the child on a program of daily laxative use with a laxative recently made available to the public as a generic medicine. Use of laxatives, however, often results in unexpected and/or uncontrollable bowel movements for the child, wherein the child cannot "avoid" soiling. Other practitioners recommend that the child be kept on a regular program of simple, water-based enemas, which can be scheduled for appropriate times when the child is comfortably at home or in other private quarters. One benefit of the enema therapy is that it keeps the child from any attempts at "parent control" by preventing the child from withholding stool. An enema usually results in a fairly timely expulsion at a time and place more convenient to family members.

Conventional treatments only afford short term symptomatic relief, but the problem generally comes back because the underlying cause has not been treated. The root of the problem may often be repressed anger. In addition to the fact that conventional treatments do not address this problem, they can also add to it by making the child even more angry. This is why the whole family must be involved with the treatment. Often the situation can be resolved with just a few therapy sessions.

See also


  1. Evaluating the Child for Sexual Abuse. Sheela L. Lahoti, Rebecca Girardet, Margeret McNeese, Kim Cheung. University of Texas Medical School at Houston, Houston, Texas
  2. Catto-Smith AG, Nolan TM, Coffey CM (September 1998). Clinical significance of anismus in encopresis. J. Gastroenterol. Hepatol. 13 (9): 955–60.

External links

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