Encopresis or Soiling

Encopresis is the medical name for stool or fecal overflow or "soiling." Contrary to what we thought decades ago, it is now believed that encopresis is usually a physical problem (a large amount of stool in the intestine), rather than psychological in origin. Encopresis, in most instances, is an "overflow" phenomenon in a child with long-standing fecal/stool retention, an extended form of constipation. This can be the case even in the absence of a history of constipation such as hard stools and abdominal pain. The child's rectal control has been "numbed" so to speak, and cannot feel the urge to defecate. The result is that stool "leaks," resulting in soiling, which obviously is embarrassing to the child.

How is encopresis treated?

The approach to the problem is a simple one based on the following steps:

  • Documentation of fecal overflow. Usually a simple abdominal X-ray will do.
  • Very aggressive evacuation with a combination of oral/suppository/enema treatments. Note that this is the only circumstance in which we generally prescribe laxative-like medication for children, because as a general rule we do not use laxatives in constipated children who do not soil.
  • Once evacuation is achieved, the next step is what I call a re-programming or re-training period. This is extremely important. The child should sit on the toilet on a daily basis, preferably after a meal, and at same time each day, for at least 15 minutes. During this time the child can read a book or play a game. Doing this repeatedly will create a routine and will re-train the intestine to empty itself daily. In this way the problem of fecal retention will not recur. Consistency is the key to success.
  • Finally, a high fiber diet is always important. I recommend feeding your child brown/whole wheat bread, bran muffins, and lot of fruits. Drinking plenty of water is also very important. Avoiding junk food, like chips and chocolates, also helps.

Practical points

Some children do not like the high fiber cereals; so mix it up with their favorite cereal. Additionally, make things fun. Have your child help in preparing these high fiber meals. Cut vegetables into funny shapes for example. Also, offer your children lots of popcorn which is a great source of fiber.

These general measures of toilet re-training and high fiber diets are also useful in treating children who are constipated, but do not soil. Constipation is a common problem in children. It is the most common identifiable cause of abdominal pain in children and accounts for about 4% of all pediatric office visits. Soiling, however, is much less common.