I’ll admit it… I like treating pooping problems. I know that grosses some people out, but it’s true. I think it’s because bowel problems really really impact people’s lives. I mean, pooping is a super basic human activity–so when it’s not working the way it should, it’s really awful.
I have recently had quite a few patients who are having difficulty evacuating their bowels. Now, there are multiple reasons why this could occur (I know, I’ve written about constipation a lot already, see here for evidence)–but today, we’re going to chat about one in particular, dyssynergic defecation or sphinctor dyssynergia.
What exactly is dyssynergic defecation?
Basically, your pelvic floor muscles work with your colon reflexively. When your colon is contracting to push the poop out, and you are sitting on the toilet ready to empty your bowels, the muscles should relax and open to allow this to occur. Sometimes, this relationship becomes dysfunctional, and basically, you think you are pushing and relaxing the sphinctor muscles, but instead, the muscles are contracting and closing the sphinctor. I know what you’re thinking– Jessica, I would know if I were actually contracting my muscles instead of relaxing them while I poop. But, no, you wouldn’t. In fact, many patients are shocked when I show them the actual coordination of their muscles.
Typically, incoordination of the pelvic floor muscles is paired with poor coordination of the abdominal muscles, and often impaired sensation of the rectum. Dyssynergic Defecation is diagnosed typically by an anorectal examination, and anorectal manometry/defecography testing (like this, with an MRI, or by assessing muscle activity with EMG while the person attempts to expel a balloon, or other testing options)
Why does it happen?
Dyssynergic defecation is very common in people who have constipation. In fact, this review suggested that close to 40% of people with constipation have this incoordination pattern. There are several factors that can contribute to dyssynergic defecation. This review estimated that close to 30% of adults with dyssynergic defecation patterns had constipation as children, and found that 46% had frequent straining to empty hard stool. But there are other factors that can contribute as well, such as:
- traumatic injury
- low back pain
- history of sexual abuse/trauma
- poor behavioral habits related to bowel health
- nothing (like many other things, we sometimes just don’t know why it happens)
What are the signs and symptoms?
As we discussed previously, dyssynergic defecation is extremely common amongst those struggling with constipation (typically meaning < 3 BMs per week, as well as symptoms of abdominal discomfort, bloating, and/or difficulty emptying bowels). This article looked at the most common reported symptoms of those with dyssynergic defecation, and found that many experienced the following:
- Excessive straining to have a bowel movement
- Feeling of incomplete evacuation after a bowel movement
- Abdominal bloating
- Frequent hard stools
- Frequently utilizing digital maneuvers to empty stool (this means, using a finger to either help pull stool out of the rectum, or using a finger to press inside the vagina to help empty)
What can you do about it?
The great news is that men and women (and kids too!!) with a dyssynergic defecation pattern can respond very well to conservative treatment! Pelvic physical therapists are typically the providers of choice when it comes to helping people with these problems, and work closely with GI and Colorectal Physicians to help these men and women. Treatment typically involves a few different components:
1. Developing amazing bowel habits. You know that has to be first on my list. If your bowel habits are not stellar, we can try to help your muscles all we want, but you will still have difficulties emptying. So, first things first, we need to make sure your dietary habits rock, you have a great bowel routine, and you know how to sit on the toilet in the most optimal way. Wondering what that toilet position is? Check out this sort of funny, mostly weird video by my favorite potty comedians and stool developers (pun intended), Squatty Potty.
2. Surface EMG Biofeedback training to improve muscle coordination: Biofeedback training uses surface electrodes placed at the anal sphinctor muscles and the abdominal muscles to identify the type of pattern a person uses to expel a bowel movement. Once we identify the pattern you currently use, we can work together to improve the pattern so that your sphinctor muscles relax when you generate abdominal pressure to empty your bowels. Seems pretty basic, right? But the right biofeedback training can make a HUGE difference–and the current research really supports this treatment for anyone with this problem. (See this article, this one, that one, and this one!)
3. Making sure your pelvic floor muscles are strong, FLEXIBLE, and well-coordinated. So, we’ve talked in detail about the pelvic floor muscles on this blog. Remember, we all want muscles that can contract AND relax. And, for dyssynergic defecation patterns, the relaxation component is extremely important! Often times, people who have difficulty relaxing their muscles to have a bowel movement tend to have tender, overactive pelvic floor muscles to begin with. So, treatment will also focus on improving awareness of the pelvic floor muscles, learning to relax the muscles (dropping and lengthening them), and often will include some manual therapy (yes, internal vaginal or rectal) to help reduce the tenderness and improve the mobility of the muscles.
4. Balloon retraining. People love hearing about this one… but it really is an awesome and effective treatment for so many men and women!! (Research supports it also– see here and here!) This treatment basically uses a small balloon that is attached to a catheter and is inserted into the rectum, and slowly inflated. Often times, people with dyssynergic defecation patterns have decreased sensitivity in the rectum, so they will not feel the presence of stool (or a balloon!) in the rectum when they typically should. Based on what we find initially, we can use the balloon to improve the sensation in the rectum. We can also use a slightly filled balloon to work on proper expelling techniques. I know what you’re thinking, Wow Jessica, this sounds like a super fun and awesome treatment. I know, but honestly, it’s very very helpful for people who need it!
Now, this just scratches the surface in terms of what all we pelvic PTs do to help with dyssynergic defecation. But, I wanted to get the conversation started! This tends to be a topic many people don’t talk about… in fact, I have had men and women travel SO far just to get the initial diagnosis! And, I need that to stop… hence this blog post today. Lastly, if you are having problems with constipation and think you may have this problem– Go see a GI/Colorectal Physician! Honestly, make an appointment today! And, contact your local pelvic PT. If you live in Atlanta or the surrounding area, give me a call! It’s time to get your bowels back in order (or even in order for the first time!).
I always look forward to hearing from you! So please, ask any questions or make any comments below!!