Neurogenic bowel occurs when the body has problems storing and removing stool from the intestines due to nerve damage.


Normal Anatomy of the Large and Small Intestine

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The digestion process is partly managed by messages sent between the brain and digestive system. These messages are sent through nerves. When these nerves are damaged, messages between the brain and digestive system are blocked. This prevents the bowels from working properly.

The spinal cord runs from the base of the brain to the lower back. There are two main types of neurogenic bowel, depending on where along the spinal cord the damage occurs.

Reflexic Bowel

This happens when there is damage around the neck or chest. Messages between the colon (large intestine) and the brain are interrupted. As a result, a person may not feel the need to have a bowel movement. However, stool is still building up in the rectum. The build-up triggers a reflex causing the rectum and colon to react, leading to a bowel movement without warning.

Areflexic Bowel

This happens when there is damage around the lower end of the spinal cord. When these lower nerves are damaged, a person is unable to feel when he needs to have a bowel movement. Also, the reflex may be reduced, so the rectum has a difficult time emptying stool. This can lead to constipation.

Risk Factors

Spinal cord injury is the main risk factor.


If you have any of these symptoms, do not assume they are due to neurogenic bowel. These symptoms may be caused by other conditions. Tell your doctor if you have any of these:

  • Trouble having a bowel movement
  • Repeated bowel accidents
  • Swollen abdomen
  • Feeling full (not hungry) quickly
  • Loose stools or very hard stools
  • Bleeding from the rectum
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diagnosis

    Your doctor will:

  • Ask about your symptoms and medical history
  • Do a physical exam
  • Tests may include:

  • Rectal exam
  • Test to check for blood in the stool
  • Treatment

    Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment options include:

    Bowel Program

    Your doctor will work with you to set up a bowel program. This program will help by:

  • Providing effective ways to have a bowel movement
  • Preventing bowel accidents
  • Establishing a predictable bowel movement schedule
  • With the program, you may:

  • Follow a certain diet and physical activity plan
  • Be given a combination of medicines to promote bowel function
  • Undergo digital stimulation to cause a bowel movement
  • Work with your healthcare team to find an ideal time for going to the bathroom and position to use when having a bowel movement
  • Participate in other methods to encourage bowel movement (eg, doing push-ups, massaging the abdomen, deep breathing, drinking warm fluids, sitting in a forward-leaning position)
  • Medication

    The main types of medicines to treat neurogenic bowel include:

  • Stool softeners—soften the stool to make bowel movement easier
  • Colonic stimulants—stimulate the colon to move the stool through the digestive tract faster
  • Osmotic laxatives—pull water into the intestines to increase stool bulk
  • Bulk formers—increase stool bulk
  • The types of medicines you will take will depend on certain factors, such as the type of neurogenic bowel you have, other medicines you may be taking, and your diet.