Bowel retraining is a program that people can follow to help regain control over the bowels or to help relieve chronic constipation. It involves training the body to have bowel movements each day at around the same time.
Bowel stimulation, diet, biofeedback, and Kegel exercises may also help support bowel retraining.
This article looks at the purpose, goals, and typical method of bowel retraining, as well as tips for helping to support regular bowel movements.
The goal of bowel retraining is to restore regular bowel movements. It is a method people may use to help treat:
- severe or chronic constipation
- incomplete emptying of the bowel
- bowel disorders, such as fecal incontinence or a loss of bowel control
According to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD), most bowel retraining programs focus on the following:
- creating a typical stool consistency, which diet and fluid intake can also help support
- establishing a regular time for bowel movements to help create a predictable routine for the body to have bowel movements
- using the least amount of stimulation required to help support regular bowel movements
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Before starting bowel retraining, people should speak with a doctor to rule out other disorders that may cause constipation or incontinence.
A doctor can diagnose the disorder a person may have and take a full medical history, including bowel patterns, diet, and any medications a person is taking.
A doctor may also carry out a physical exam to assess bowel control. During the physical exam, a person may undergo a rectal exam or an anoscopy, which involves examining the anal canal and rectum.
It is also helpful for people to keep a diary to track symptoms, such as voluntary or involuntary bowel movements, diet, amount of fluid intake, and any other related symptoms.
People will need to follow the specific guidance of a healthcare professional, but the National Association for Continence (NAFC) provides the following advice for bowel retraining:
- place a lubricated finger inside the anus and use circular movements to relax the sphincter
- sit on the toilet in a comfortable position, or if using a bedpan, lie on the left side
- sit on the toilet for up to 20 minutes
- try to relax during this time — some people may find it helps to read a book
- contract the abdominal muscles and bear down while bending forward to help produce a bowel movement
- if people do not have a bowel movement after 20 minutes, they can reinsert a lubricated finger for stimulation
Other methods of stimulating the bowels include:
- using a suppository, such as bisacodyl or glycerin
- using an enema
- drinking warm prune juice or fruit nectar
People will need to repeat bowel retraining every day until they develop a consistent pattern of regular bowel movements.
People should do bowel retraining at a set time each day, such as after breakfast. The ideal time for bowel retraining is around 20–40 minutes after eating.
Ideally, a person can fit bowel retraining into their schedule at a time when they can relax and have privacy.
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The time frame for bowel retraining may vary for each individual and their specific condition. However, according to the NAFC, most people who use bowel retraining consistently will often develop regular bowel movements within a few weeks.
If people are retraining their bowel to treat fecal incontinence, the condition may take
Alongside bowel retraining, eating nutritious, well-balanced meals may help promote regular bowel movements and improved stool consistency.
People can try to eat a diet high in fiber, which includes foods such as:
It is also important to drink plenty of fluids to help prevent the stool from hardening and becoming more difficult to pass.
Learn more about the best foods for constipation.
During bowel retraining, people may benefit from:
- trying to remain relaxed
- being consistent
- drinking plenty of fluids
- eating a high fiber diet
A healthcare professional will place two probes — one on the abdomen and one on the anal canal — and allow the person to watch the electrical activity as they tighten and relax the muscles.
This allows people to learn how to properly coordinate and control these muscles to have proper bowel movements.
Learn more about the benefits of biofeedback.
Kegel exercises, or pelvic floor muscle training, are exercises people can use to help improve control over bowel movements.
Kegel exercises involve squeezing, holding, and releasing the pelvic floor muscles. People can work with a physical therapist or another healthcare professional to ensure they use the correct muscles in the exercises.
Learn more about Kegel exercises for males and females.
Bowel retraining carries few risks, but it is important to work alongside a healthcare professional while following a bowel retraining program.
People may find the process frustrating or time-consuming, but it is important to relax as much as possible, stay consistent, and not rush the process.
If people still experience problems with their bowels several weeks after beginning retraining, they can talk with a doctor.
Bowel retraining is a method for establishing regular bowel movements. It involves teaching the body to have regular bowel movements at the same time each day.
Bowel retraining may help to treat bowel disorders such as chronic constipation, incomplete emptying, or fecal incontinence.
People may find symptoms improve within weeks or months of consistent bowel retraining. Diet, pelvic floor muscle exercises, and biofeedback may also help support the process.