Dawn Sandalcidi, PT, RCMT, BCB-PMD can be found online at https://kidsbowelbladder.com/. Dawn is a long time instructor with Herman & Wallace and has generously shared her recent blog with The Pelvic Rehab Report. "Stool Withholding And Core Activation" can be found in its original post on her website here: https://kidsbowelbladder.com/stool-withholding-and-core-activation/.
What do they have in common?
About 9-12% of children suffer from functional constipation, which is the vicious cycle of retained stool causing rectal distention and subsequent loss of sensation and urge to defecate, which results in further stool retention. The exact physiologic causes for functional constipation are not completely understood.
We know the bowel absorbs water constantly. The longer stool sits in the rectum, the harder it becomes. For some children, this leads to very large stools that are uncomfortable or difficult to eliminate. In turn, these children may practice something called stool withholding (which may be the reason stool was sitting in the rectum too long in the first place).
There are many other reasons a child may withhold their stools beside the standard issues that functional constipation presents. Some other reasons for stool withholding include:
No matter how or why a child began withholding stools, it’s vital to treat the problem as soon as possible. When withholding and constipation go untreated, they can cause lifelong issues. In this article, we will explore the relationship between constipation and core control, specifically the child’s ability to generate intraabdominal pressure.
What are the Symptoms a Child May have When Practicing Stool Withholding?
Normally, when enough stool enters the rectum and it’s time for a bowel movement, the rectum will send messages to the brain to make you aware that it’s time to have a poop. Ideally, when you receive this message and become aware of your body’s need to defecate, you find a toilet and do so.
When a child regularly withholds stools, the stool may become retained in the rectum and cause rectal distention and a subsequent loss of sensation. Because the rectum isn’t able to sense its fullness, the messages are never sent to the brain, and the sense of urge to poop disappears.
Although children who withhold stools may not have the urge to poop, they can have other physical symptoms if their stool withholding causes stool retention.
Physical symptoms of stool retention include:
Children who withhold stools do not always have retention, however, and sometimes will simply withhold stools due to their environment (such as being at school during the day), and poop as soon as they get home.
How Might Core Strength Relate to Stool Withholding?
I treated a 6-year-old child once who had a bowel movement every single day, but only after he fell asleep in his parents' arms. His parents hadn’t been able to transition him out of diapers because of this. His bowel movements were so predictable that his parents would wait for him to poop, then clean him up and put him back to bed.
This child was also autistic and did have issues with low tone. I discovered during examination of the child that he had a difficult time voluntarily contracting his core muscles. Rotational and balance activities were difficult for him to perform as well due to his lack of core control.
You may be wondering what the core has to do with constipation, or stool withholding specifically. For starters, you need adequate core strength in order to sit upright on the toilet. Without proper core control, children may develop poor toileting postures which can lead to difficulty with defecation.
Correct toileting posture involves first being able to have enough hip extension, back extension, and side-to-side control to balance in a seated position on the toilet seat. Seats of differing heights add to the complexity of good toileting posture.
Proper Body Position for Toileting
Ideally, your feet should be supported, not dangling (which is a common occurrence for our children using adult-sized toilets). Forearms should be resting on the thighs, and the hips should be bent to at least 90 degrees of flexion. The spine should be in a neutral position (no posterior pelvic tilt).
This position allows for the pelvic floor muscles to relax appropriately, and for the core muscles to activate enough in order to produce appropriate intraabdominal pressure.
Without appropriate intraabdominal pressure generation, it will be difficult for a child to push out their poop. This is precisely what we discovered with my patient who was withholding until she got into bed. When in her parents' arms she was flexed, it was easier for her to generate enough intraabdominal pressure to poop, and so she did!
Knowing the reason for his withholding allowed us to target treatment planning where he needed it the most.
How to Address Core Strength in Children who Withhold Stools
Once you’ve determined that core activation is a root issue, you’ll need to address it in order to see any change with your patient’s bowel habits. Parents are usually at their wit’s end and are looking to you for answers. Your physical exam is your best tool in identifying root causes of stool withholding.
Many children attending physical and/or occupational therapy do suffer from low tone. As we’ve learned, this can compound constipation issues and even lead to stool withholding.
With the child above, we worked on core activation exercises first in supine, then in prone on an incline, and gradually added challenge to his exercises until she was able to generate enough intraabdominal pressure to poop on the toilet independently.
Even if your patient does not suffer from low tone, core activation and training may still be indicated. Some children have difficulty with coordinating or timing appropriate muscle contraction and relaxation. Be sure to evaluate the core when treating patients who suffer from constipation and stool withholding.
These children may have difficulty crossing midline as well. Age-appropriate exercises to engage the core while also incorporating diagonal and midline-crossing motions will be beneficial for those patients.
Additionally, you’ll want to assess the rib cage. Oftentimes I find children who have difficulty with core control also have a wider rib angle and hence need upper abdominal engagement exercises.
Lastly, many of the children you’ll treat will need help with rotation. This is a common finding during examination and without addressing rotation, you’ll see much slower progress.
Treating Stool Withholding and Core Issues is Possible
So many children with constipation will not receive appropriate treatment during childhood and their problems will persist into adulthood. It’s our job as pediatric therapists to identify children in need of help. Many children with bowel and bladder problems will be seen in your clinics for other issues, and unfortunately never even bring up the bowel or bladder concerns.
I put together a list of 5 Screening Questions you can ask your patients to determine whether they might be suffering from bowel or bladder issues and not even know it. This is a quick and easy way to identify patients in need of pediatric pelvic floor therapy.
It’s a great idea to get in touch with your local pediatric pelvic floor specialist to be able to easily refer these patients. You can also become a pediatric pelvic floor therapist yourself by taking my online courses! I believe this patient population is severely underserved and have made it easier than ever to learn how to best support these children.
My courses are held live in various locations around the world throughout the year, but I also offer online options for you to be able to work at your own pace from the comfort of home. Inside my online courses, there is space in every module to leave comments or ask questions and they go directly to me.
Sign Up For the Pediatric Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders Remote Course.
I’ve also created a group online where those who have taken my courses can collaborate, receive my mentorship, and discuss any issues that come up along their pediatric pelvic floor therapy journey. The group is called KBB Professional Village.
Experience Level: Intermediate
Contact Hours: 15
Description: This two-day, remote course is offered on Zoom and is the next step for therapists who focus on the pediatric pelvic floor patient population. It is designed to expand your knowledge of the development of normal bowel patterns in children, introduce the new Rome IV criteria (Zeevenhoovenet al. 2017), and review the anatomy and physiology of the GI system with emphasis on Pediatric Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (FGID).
This course will delve into the most common types of functional constipation and the tests and measures used to assess it. Special emphasis on constipation with the coexistence of fecal incontinence (Nurko, Scott. 2011) and the psychological effects of these disorders will also be presented. Additionally, participants who have not yet been trained will learn external and internal anorectal PFM evaluation of the pediatric perineum. Indications for rectal balloon training and determining the appropriate patient will be instructed with lab. Functional defecatory positions for breathing and PFM relaxation, manual therapy techniques of the abdominal wall and viscera will be taught.