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New Treatment for Bowel Incontinence Hits a Nerve


Bowel incontinence is a problem that can be a challenge to treat and is a subject few people want to talk about. Now a new treatment for chronic bowel incontinence literally hits a nerve and offers a way to improve the lives of some of the more than 18 million Americans who suffer with this condition.

The FDA approves new bowel incontinence treatment

The new three-step treatment approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for chronic bowel incontinence is called InterStim® Therapy. Results of recent studies showed that this minimally invasive procedure reduced or eliminated bowel incontinence in 80 percent of patients who underwent treatment.

According to Anne-Marie Boller, MD, a colon rectal surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital (one of the first medical centers in the country to offer the procedure), “This treatment is a tremendous advancement that has the potential to improve patients’ bowel control and their quality of life.” These are critical advantages, as many people who suffer with this condition experience embarrassment and social isolation.

The first step of treatment involves stimulating the sacral nerve (which originates from the sacrum at the base of the spine) with a thin wire to determine if a patient will likely benefit from the therapy. If the test is successful, the second step involves implanting a neurostimulator device into the buttock, which uses electrical impulses to stimulate the sacral nerve and improve muscle function. This device can be controlled by the patient with a remote control type instrument. The third step is follow-up monitoring.

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Bowel incontinence, also referred to as fecal incontinence, is the inability to hold a bowel movement until reaching a bathroom. The condition also refers to the accidental leakage of feces, which can occur when passing gas. It is more common among older adults, although it is not always a part of aging, and it occurs slightly more often among women.

Fecal incontinence is often caused by a medical problem and can be treated, yet many people are too embarrassed to discuss the condition with their healthcare providers. Medical causes may include diarrhea, constipation, muscle damage or weakness, loss of stretch in the rectum, hemorrhoids, pelvic floor dysfunction, and nerve damage.

InterStim Therapy was previously approved by the FDA for treatment of overactive bladder, but has been available in other countries for bowel incontinence for several years. This new FDA approval opens up the opportunity for individuals in the United States.

One of the benefits of this new treatment for bowel incontinence is that clinicians can identify which patients will probably benefit from the therapy before they commit to the full procedure. Amy Halverson, MD, a colon rectal surgeon at Northwestern Memorial, called InterStim Therapy “an exciting new option that will give many patients their freedom back by eliminating symptoms.”

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Northwestern Memorial Hospital