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«A Biobehavioral Approach to the Treatment of Functional Encopresis in Children Patrick C. Friman, Kristi L. Hofstadter and Kevin M. Jones Abstract ...»

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A Biobehavioral Approach to the Treatment of Functional

Encopresis in Children

Patrick C. Friman, Kristi L. Hofstadter and Kevin M. Jones


Functional encopresis (FE) refers to the repeated passage of feces into inappropriate places at

least once per month for at least 3 months. Treatment of FE targets the processes that cause or

exacerbate the condition, including reduced colonic motility, constipation, and fecal impaction. The cardinal elements of successful treatment include “demystifying” the elimination process, bowel evacuation, stool softeners, prompts and reinforcement for proper toileting habits, and dietary modifications. Despite misinformation and misinterpretations of encopresis, the assessment and treatment of this condition actually represent one of the more successful achievements of behavior therapy.

Keywords: Encopresis, constipation, fecal incontinence.

Introduction Functional encopresis (FE) is a common, under-treated and often over-interpreted elimination disorder in children. Although all forms of incontinence require evaluation and treatment, when left untreated FE is more likely than other forms, such as enuresis, to lead to serious and potentially life- threatening medical sequelae and impaired social acceptance, relations, and development. The reasons for the medical sequelae will be summarized briefly below. The primary reason for the social impairment is that soiling evokes more revulsion from peers, parents, and caretakers than other forms of incontinence (and most other behavior problems). As an example, severe corporal punishment for fecal accidents was still recommended by professionals in the late 19th century (Henoch, 1889).

Evidence-based practices in the treatment of FE have evolved substantially since then, but the approaches by lay persons (and still some professionals) have not kept pace. Children with FE are still frequently shamed, blamed, and punished for a condition that is most often beyond their control (Christophersen & Friman, 2004; Friman, 2003; Friman & Jones, 1998; Levine, 1982).

The definition of FE has remained relatively consistent across versions of the DSM; the DSM- IV (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) lists four criteria for FE: (1) repeated passage of feces into inappropriate places whether involuntary or intentional; (2) at least one such event a month for at least 3 months; (3) chronological age is at least 4 years (or equivalent developmental level); and, 4) the behavior is not due exclusively to the direct physiological effects of a substance or a general medical condition except through a mechanism involving constipation. The DSM-IV indicates that approximately 1% of five-year-olds meet the criteriafor encopresis, and males are affected more frequently than females.

There are a number of classification schemes for encopresis, but the system most commonly used employs a retentive versus nonretentive dichotomy. Retentive encopresis is defined as fecal soiling with constipation and overflow incontinence, whereas nonretentive encopresis occurs without constipation and overflow incontinence (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). Christophersen and Mortweet (2001) describe constipation as the passage of large or hard stools, often accompanied by complaints of abdominal pain, infrequent bowel movements (fewer than three per week), the presence of abdominal masses upon physical examination, and emotional upset before, during, and

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after defecation. Constipation is present in approximately 95% of children referred for treatment of encopresis, indicating that retentive encopresis is far more common than the nonretentive classification (Loening-Baucke, 1996).

Prevalence Current prevalence rates for the occurrence of encopresis are scarce, and many commonly cited figures are based on studies conducted three or even four decades ago. Recent investigations indicate that the prevalence of encopresis is between 1% to 4% of children, depending on the source and age reported. A Swedish population-based study found that 0.6% of first grade students and 0.7% of fourth grade students experienced fecal incontinence (Soderstrom, Hoelcke, Alenius, Soderling, & Hjern, 2004). Encopresis was reported to occur in 4% of 8 to 12-year-old children in South India (Hackett, Hackett, Bhakta, & Gowers, 2001) and 3% of children between 3 and 12years-old in the United States (Bloom, Seeley, Ritchey, & McGuire, 1993). Van der Wal, Benninga, and Hirasing (2005) indicated that the prevalence of encopresis was 4.1% in 5 to 6-year-old children and 1.6% in 11 to 12-year-old children in Amsterdam. The percentage of affected children in each age group who had consulted a physician, however, was only 38% and 27%, respectively, suggesting that prevalence rates based on physician referrals may be gross underestimates.

Underlying Process

Successful treatment of FE targets the processes that cause the condition or exacerbate stooling difficulties, including reduced colonic motility, constipation, and fecal retention, and the various behavioral/dietary factors contributing to these conditions, including: (1) insufficient roughage or bulk in the diet; (2) irregular diet; (3) insufficient oral intake of fluids ; (4) medications that may have a side-effect of constipation; (5) unstructured, inconsistent, and/or punitive approaches to toilet training;

and (6) toileting avoidance by the child. Any of these factors, singly or in combination, places the child at risk for reduced colonic motility, actual constipation, and corresponding uncomfortable or painful bowel movements. Uncomfortable or painful bowel movements, in turn, negatively reinforce fecal retention, and retention leads to a regressive reciprocal cycle often resulting in regular fecal accidents. When the constipation is severe or the cycle is chronic, fecal impaction may result from the collection of hard dry stool on the colon rectum. Not infrequently, liquid fecal matter will seep around the fecal mass, producing "paradoxical diarrhea." Although the child is actually constipated, the watery, foul-smelling leakage produced can be misdiagnosed as diarrhea. In such cases, parents may inadvertently worsen the problem by administering over-the-counter antidiarrheal agents (Christophersen & Mortweet, 2001; Levine, 1982).

In a minority of cases, fecal incontinence does not involve problems with colonic motility or constipation. For these children, fecal incontinence is characterized by regular, well-formed, soft bowel movements that occur somewhere other than the toilet. The process underlying these cases is not well understood except that they tend to be treatment resistant (Christophersen & Friman, 2004;

Friman, 2003; Friman & Jones, 1998; Landman & Rappaport, 1985).

Assessment The therapist faced with an encopretic child should essentially go no further with treatment until the child has received a medical evaluation. Table 1 displays a series of steps, beginning with

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assessment, which outline a comprehensive biobehavioral treatment. The medical evaluation will typically involve a thorough medical, dietary, and bowel history. In addition, abdominal palpitation and rectal examination are used to check for large amounts of fecal matter, very dry fecal matter in the rectal vault, and poor sphincter tone. Approximately 70% of constipation can be determined on physical exam and detection can be increased to above 90% with a KUB (x-ray of kidneys, urethra, and bladder) (Barr, Levine, & Watkins, 1979). The medical risk posed by fecal matter accumulating in an organ with a limited amount of space is serious, and children’s colonic systems can become painfully and dangerously distended, sometimes to the point of being life threatening (McGuire, Rothenberg, & Tyler, 1983).

Table 1 Sample Biobehavioral Treatment Plan

1. Refer to appropriately trained physician for evaluation.

2. Demystify bowel movements and problems and eliminate all punishment.

3. Completely evacuate bowel. Procedures are prescribed and overseen by physician.

4. Establish regular toileting schedule. Ensure that child’s feet are on a flat surface during toileting.

5. Establish monitoring and motivational system.

6. Provide feedback. Praise attempts and successes, and require child participation in clean up for accidents.

7. Teach appropriate wiping and flushing.

8. Implement dietary changes that include regularity of meals and increases in fluid and fiber intake.

9. Utilize facilitative medication. What, when, and how much to be established by physician.

10. Establish method for fading facilitative medication.

Certain medical conditions can also be identified during a thorough examination. The most common organic cause of bowel dysfunction is Hirschsprung's disease, a condition involving segments of non-enervated tissue in the colon. Many symptoms of Hirschsprung's disease are rarely seen in children with encopresis. For example, fecal incontinence is rare in children with Hirschsprung's disease, whereas soiling is the primary symptom associated with encopresis.

Therapists are encouraged to consult publications that further compare and contrast the two disorders (Christophersen & Mortweet, 2001; Levine, 1981). In addition, slow or absent weight gain in children who are below age expected weight levels may indicate a malabsorption syndrome and thus require specialized medical treatment (Barr et al., 1979).

265 JEIBI VOLUME 3, ISSUE NO. 3, 2006 Initial evaluation should also include a thorough psychological history. In a small percentage of cases FE is secondary to extraordinary emotional disturbance and thus resistant to behavioral/medical treatment focused primarily on FE (Landman & Rappaport, 1985). In such cases, the emotional condition may be a treatment priority especially when there is no evidence of constipation or fecal retention. It should be noted, however, that although some children with FE also have psychological problems, the incidence of clinically significant levels of behavior problems in encopretic samples is simply too low to suggest a causal relationship between the two conditions (Friman, Mathews, Finney, & Christopherson, 1988; Gabel, Hegedus, Wald, Chandra, & Chiponis, 1986; Loening-Baucke, Cruikshank, & Savage, 1987). Thus, targeting psychological problems in order to obtain fecal continence would seem imprudent from the perspective of the scientific literature. Rather, when FE and behavioral/psychological problems co-occur, they often have to be treated separately. For example, children who have poorly developed instructional control skills are at risk for being noncompliant with treatment and thus instructional control training may need to precede or accompany treatment for FE.

Assessment toward the management of encopresis should include a review of the child’s medical history, toileting habits, and bowel movements, with particular attention to symptoms of constipation. Any prior interventions attempted by primary care physicians, other professionals, and the child’s parents should be discussed, including an assessment of punishment history (e.g., Does the child hide soiled clothes?), parent motivation, and child motivation. Last, the interview should include questions about the child’s diet and timing of meals, as a low-fiber diet and irregular eating schedule may contribute to encopresis (Christophersen & Mortweet, 2001; Christophersen & Friman, 2004;

Friman, 2003; Friman & Jones, 1998).

Treatment of Retentive FE

Demystification. Although the child is the target of treatment, the parent or guardian is the delivery agent and thus the primary recipient of the information about treatment. With the child present, the therapist should discuss treatment in general terms, express optimism about potential outcomes, and “demystify” the elimination process (Levine, 1982). In most cases, the parents (and child) will benefit from viewing a diagram of abnormal bowel functioning that (a) describes how each element of treatment works and (b) communicates clearly that the child’s bowel problems are not intentional or the result of stubbornness, immaturity, or laziness. It is essential that parents understand that FE should no more be a target for censure and blame than should a disordered process of respiration, digestion, or motor movement. As indicated above, the literature does not reflect a significant association between psychological profiles and child bowel problems. Thus, any punitive parental responses towards fecal accidents, whether perceived as intentional or unintentional, should be terminated. Requesting a verbal commitment to this effect from the parent, in the presence of the child, may substantially increase child motivation to participate.

Bowel evacuation. A critical step in the inauguration and continuation of effective treatment is complete bowel evacuation. The ultimate goal for treatment is for this step to be completed regularly by the child. At the beginning of treatment, however, they are usually unable and thuse the process must initiated by caregivers. Needed is a full cleansing of the bowel of resident fecal matter and this is accomplished using a combination of enemas, suppositories, or laxatives. Although the therapist can assist with the prescription of these (e.g., with suggestions about timing, interactional style, behavioral management, etc.) the evacuation procedure must be prescribed and overseen by 266 JEIBI VOLUME 3, ISSUE NO. 3, 2006 the child’s physician. Typically, evacuation procedures are conducted in the child’s home, but hospitalization may be necessary if constipation is extremely severe or home compliance is likely to be poor. The ultimate goal, however, should be complete parent management of evacuation procedures, because these techniques are to be used whenever the child’s eliminational pattern suggests excessive fecal retention (Christophersen & Mortweet, 2001; Levine, 1982).

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