Management of faecal incontinence and constipation in adults with central neurological diseases

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014 Jan 13;2014(1):CD002115. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD002115.pub5.


Background: People with central neurological disease or injury have a much higher risk of both faecal incontinence and constipation than the general population. There is often a fine line between the two symptoms, with any management intended to ameliorate one risking precipitating the other. Bowel problems are observed to be the cause of much anxiety and may reduce quality of life in these people. Current bowel management is largely empirical, with a limited research base. This is an update of a Cochrane review first published in 2001 and subsequently updated in 2003 and 2006. The review is relevant to individuals with any disease directly and chronically affecting the central nervous system (post-traumatic, degenerative, ischaemic or neoplastic), such as multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, cerebrovascular disease, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.

Objectives: To determine the effects of management strategies for faecal incontinence and constipation in people with a neurological disease or injury affecting the central nervous system.

Search methods: We searched the Cochrane Incontinence Group Trials Register (searched 8 June 2012), which includes searches of the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE and MEDLINE In-Process as well as handsearching of journals and conference proceedings; and all reference lists of relevant articles.

Selection criteria: Randomised and quasi-randomised trials evaluating any type of conservative or surgical intervention for the management of faecal incontinence and constipation in people with central neurological disease or injury were selected. Specific therapies for the treatment of neurological diseases that indirectly affect bowel dysfunction were also considered.

Data collection and analysis: At least two review authors independently assessed the risk of bias of eligible trials and independently extracted data from the included trials using a range of pre-specified outcome measures.

Main results: Twenty trials involving 902 people were included. Oral medications There was evidence from individual small trials that people with Parkinson's disease had a statistically significant improvement in the number of bowel motions or successful bowel care routines per week when fibre (psyllium) (mean difference (MD) -2.2 bowel motions, 95% confidence interval (CI) -3.3 to -1.4) or oral laxative (isosmotic macrogol electrolyte solution) (MD 2.9 bowel motions per week, 95% CI 1.48 to 4.32) are used compared with placebo. One trial in people with spinal cord injury showed statistically significant improvement in total bowel care time comparing intramuscular neostigmine-glycopyrrolate (anticholinesterase plus an anticholinergic drug) with placebo (MD 23.3 minutes, 95% CI 4.68 to 41.92).Five studies reported the use of cisapride and tegaserod in people with spinal cord injuries or Parkinson's disease. These drugs have since been withdrawn from the market due to adverse effects; as they are no longer available they have been removed from this review. Rectal stimulants One small trial in people with spinal cord injuries compared two bisacodyl suppositories, one polyethylene glycol-based (PGB) and one hydrogenated vegetable oil-based (HVB). The trial found that the PGB bisacodyl suppository significantly reduced the mean defaecation period (PGB 20 minutes versus HVB 36 minutes, P < 0.03) and mean total time for bowel care (PGB 43 minutes versus HVB 74.5 minutes, P < 0.01) compared with the HVB bisacodyl suppository.Physical interventions There was evidence from one small trial with 31 participants that abdominal massage statistically improved the number of bowel motions in people who had a stroke compared with no massage (MD 1.7 bowel motions per week, 95% CI 2.22 to 1.18). A small feasibility trial including 30 individuals with multiple sclerosis also found evidence to support the use of abdominal massage. Constipation scores were statistically better with the abdominal massage during treatment although this was not supported by a change in outcome measures (for example the neurogenic bowel dysfunction score).One small trial in people with spinal cord injury showed statistically significant improvement in total bowel care time using electrical stimulation of abdominal muscles compared with no electrical stimulation (MD 29.3 minutes, 95% CI 7.35 to 51.25).There was evidence from one trial with a low risk of bias that for people with spinal cord injury transanal irrigation, compared against conservative bowel care, statistically improved constipation scores, neurogenic bowel dysfunction score, faecal incontinence score and total time for bowel care (MD 27.4 minutes, 95% CI 7.96 to 46.84). Patients were also more satisfied with this method.Other interventions In one trial in stroke patients, there appeared to be a short term benefit (less than six months) to patients in terms of the number of bowel motions per week with a one-off educational intervention from nurses (a structured nurse assessment leading to targeted education versus routine care), but this did not persist at 12 months. A trial in individuals with spinal cord injury found that a stepwise protocol did not reduce the need for oral laxatives and manual evacuation of stool.Finally, one further trial reported in abstract form showed that oral carbonated water (rather than tap water) improved constipation scores in people who had had a stroke.

Authors' conclusions: There is still remarkably little research on this common and, to patients, very significant issue of bowel management. The available evidence is almost uniformly of low methodological quality. The clinical significance of some of the research findings presented here is difficult to interpret, not least because each intervention has only been addressed in individual trials, against control rather than compared against each other, and the interventions are very different from each other.There was very limited evidence from individual trials in favour of a bulk-forming laxative (psyllium), an isosmotic macrogol laxative, abdominal massage, electrical stimulation and an anticholinesterase-anticholinergic drug combination (neostigmine-glycopyrrolate) compared to no treatment or controls. There was also evidence in favour of transanal irrigation (compared to conservative management), oral carbonated (rather than tap) water and abdominal massage with lifestyle advice (compared to lifestyle advice alone). However, these findings need to be confirmed by larger well-designed controlled trials which should include evaluation of the acceptability of the intervention to patients and the effect on their quality of life.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Central Nervous System Diseases / complications*
  • Cisapride / therapeutic use
  • Constipation / etiology
  • Constipation / therapy*
  • Fecal Incontinence / etiology
  • Fecal Incontinence / therapy*
  • Gastrointestinal Agents / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Parkinson Disease / complications
  • Psyllium / therapeutic use
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / complications


  • Gastrointestinal Agents
  • Psyllium
  • Cisapride