Diarrhea and constipation are exceedingly common and, together, exact an enormous toll in terms of mortality, morbidity, social inconvenience, loss of work productivity, and consumption of medical resources. Worldwide, >1 billion individuals suffer one or more episodes of acute diarrhea each year. Among the 100 million persons affected annually by acute diarrhea in the United States, nearly half must restrict activities, 10% consult physicians, ∼250,000 require hospitalization, and ∼5000 die (primarily the elderly). The annual economic burden to society may exceed $20 billion. Acute infectious diarrhea remains one of the most common causes of mortality in developing countries, particularly among impoverished infants, accounting for 1.8 million deaths per year. Recurrent, acute diarrhea in children in tropical countries results in environmental enteropathy with long-term impacts on physical and intellectual development.
Constipation, by contrast, is rarely associated with mortality and is exceedingly common in developed countries, leading to frequent self-medication and, in a third of those, to medical consultation. Population statistics on chronic diarrhea and constipation are more uncertain, perhaps due to variable definitions and reporting, but the frequency of these conditions is also high. United States population surveys put prevalence rates for chronic diarrhea at 2–7% and for chronic constipation at 12–19%, with women being affected twice as often as men. Diarrhea and constipation are among the most common patient complaints presenting to internists and primary care physicians, and they account for nearly 50% of referrals to gastroenterologists.
Although diarrhea and constipation may present as mere nuisance symptoms at one extreme, they can be severe or life-threatening at the other. Even mild symptoms may signal a serious underlying gastrointestinal lesion, such as colorectal cancer, or systemic disorder, such as thyroid disease. Given the heterogeneous causes and potential severity of these common complaints, it is imperative for clinicians to appreciate the pathophysiology, etiologic classification, diagnostic strategies, and principles of management of diarrhea and constipation, so that rational and cost-effective care can be delivered.
While the primary function of the small intestine is the digestion and assimilation of nutrients from food, the small intestine and colon together perform important functions that regulate the secretion and absorption of water and electrolytes, the storage and subsequent transport of intraluminal contents aborally, and the salvage of some nutrients that are not absorbed in the small intestine after bacterial metabolism of carbohydrate allows salvage of short-chain fatty acids. The main motor functions are summarized in Table 55-1. Alterations in fluid and electrolyte handling contribute significantly to diarrhea. Alterations in motor and sensory functions of the colon result in highly prevalent syndromes such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), chronic diarrhea, and chronic constipation.
The small intestine and colon have intrinsic and extrinsic innervation. The intrinsic innervation, also called the enteric nervous system, comprises myenteric, submucosal, and mucosal neuronal layers. The function of these layers is modulated by interneurons through the actions of neurotransmitter amines or peptides, including acetylcholine, vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP), opioids, norepinephrine, serotonin, adenosine triphosphate (ATP), and nitric oxide (NO). The myenteric plexus regulates smooth-muscle function through intermediary pacemaker-like cells called the interstitial cells of Cajal, and the submucosal plexus affects secretion, absorption, and mucosal blood flow. The enteric nervous system receives input from the extrinsic nerves, but it is capable of independent control of these functions.
TABLE 55-1Normal Gastrointestinal Motility: Functions at Different Anatomic Levels ||Download (.pdf) TABLE 55-1Normal Gastrointestinal Motility: Functions at Different Anatomic Levels
|Stomach and Small Bowel |
| Synchronized MMC in fasting |
| Accommodation, trituration, mixing, transit |
| Stomach ∼3 h |
| Small bowel ∼3 h |
| Ileal reservoir empties boluses |
|Colon: Irregular Mixing, Fermentation, Absorption, Transit |
| Ascending, transverse: reservoirs |
| Descending: conduit |
| Sigmoid/rectum: volitional reservoir |
The extrinsic innervations of the small intestine and colon are part of the autonomic nervous system and also modulate motor and secretory functions. The parasympathetic nerves convey visceral sensory pathways from and excitatory pathways to the small intestine and colon. Parasympathetic fibers via the vagus nerve reach the small intestine and proximal colon along the branches of the superior mesenteric artery. The distal colon is supplied by sacral parasympathetic nerves (S2–4) via the pelvic plexus; these fibers course through the wall of the colon as ascending intracolonic fibers as far as, and in some instances including, the proximal colon. The chief excitatory neurotransmitters controlling motor function are acetylcholine and the tachykinins, such as substance P. The sympathetic nerve supply modulates motor functions and reaches the small intestine and colon alongside their arterial vessels. Sympathetic input to the gut is generally excitatory to sphincters and inhibitory to non-sphincteric muscle. Visceral afferents convey sensation from the gut to the central nervous system (CNS); initially, they course along sympathetic fibers, but as they approach the spinal cord they separate, have cell bodies in the dorsal root ganglion, and enter the dorsal horn of the spinal cord. Afferent signals are conveyed to the brain along the lateral spinothalamic tract and the nociceptive dorsal column pathway and are then projected beyond the thalamus and brainstem to the insula and cerebral cortex to be perceived. Other afferent fibers synapse in the prevertebral ganglia and reflexly modulate intestinal motility, blood flow, and secretion.
INTESTINAL FLUID ABSORPTION AND SECRETION
On an average day, 9 L of fluid enter the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, ∼1 L of residual fluid reaches the colon, and the stool excretion of fluid constitutes about 0.2 L/d. The colon has a large capacitance and functional reserve and may recover up to four times its usual volume of 0.8 L/d, provided the rate of flow permits reabsorption to occur. Thus, the colon can partially compensate for excess fluid delivery to the colon that may result from intestinal absorptive or secretory disorders.
In the small intestine and colon, sodium absorption is predominantly electrogenic (i.e., it can be measured as an ionic current across the membrane because there is not an equivalent loss of a cation from the cell), and uptake takes place at the apical membrane; it is compensated for by the export functions of the basolateral sodium pump. There are several active transport proteins at the apical membrane, especially in the small intestine, whereby sodium ion entry is coupled to monosaccharides (e.g., glucose through the transporter SGLT1, or fructose through GLUT-5). Glucose then exits the basal membrane through a specific transport protein, GLUT-5, creating a glucose concentration gradient between the lumen and the intercellular space, drawing water and electrolytes passively from the lumen. A variety of neural and nonneural mediators regulate colonic fluid and electrolyte balance, including cholinergic, adrenergic, and serotonergic mediators. Angiotensin and aldosterone also influence colonic absorption, reflecting the common embryologic development of the distal colonic epithelium and the renal tubules.
During the fasting period, the motility of the small intestine is characterized by a cyclical event called the migrating motor complex (MMC), which serves to clear nondigestible residue from the small intestine (the intestinal “housekeeper”). This organized, propagated series of contractions lasts, on average, 4 min, occurs every 60–90 min, and usually involves the entire small intestine. After food ingestion, the small intestine produces irregular, mixing contractions of relatively low amplitude, except in the distal ileum where more powerful contractions occur intermittently and empty the ileum by bolus transfers.
ILEOCOLONIC STORAGE AND SALVAGE
The distal ileum acts as a reservoir, emptying intermittently by bolus movements. This action allows time for salvage of fluids, electrolytes, and nutrients. Segmentation by haustra compartmentalizes the colon and facilitates mixing, retention of residue, and formation of solid stools. There is increased appreciation of the intimate interaction between the colonic function and the luminal ecology. The resident microorganisms, predominantly anaerobic bacteria, in the colon are necessary for the digestion of unabsorbed carbohydrates that reach the colon even in health, thereby providing a vital source of nutrients to the mucosa. Normal colonic flora also keeps pathogens at bay by a variety of mechanisms. In health, the ascending and transverse regions of colon function as reservoirs (average transit time, 15 h), and the descending colon acts as a conduit (average transit time, 3 h). The colon is efficient at conserving sodium and water, a function that is particularly important in sodium-depleted patients in whom the small intestine alone is unable to maintain sodium balance. Diarrhea or constipation may result from alteration in the reservoir function of the proximal colon or the propulsive function of the left colon. Constipation may also result from disturbances of the rectal or sigmoid reservoir, typically as a result of dysfunction of the pelvic floor, the anal sphincters, the coordination of defecation, or dehydration.
COLONIC MOTILITY AND TONE
The small intestinal MMC only rarely continues into the colon. However, short duration or phasic contractions mix colonic contents, and high-amplitude (>75 mmHg) propagated contractions (HAPCs) are sometimes associated with mass movements through the colon and normally occur approximately five times per day, usually on awakening in the morning and postprandially. Increased frequency of HAPCs may result in diarrhea or urgency. The predominant phasic contractions in the colon are irregular and non-propagated and serve a “mixing” function.
Colonic tone refers to the background contractility upon which phasic contractile activity (typically contractions lasting <15 s) is superimposed. It is an important cofactor in the colon’s capacitance (volume accommodation) and sensation.
COLONIC MOTILITY AFTER MEAL INGESTION
After meal ingestion, colonic phasic and tonic contractility increase for a period of ∼2 h. The initial phase (∼10 min) is mediated by the vagus nerve in response to mechanical distention of the stomach. The subsequent response of the colon requires caloric stimulation (e.g., intake of at least 500 kcal) and is mediated, at least in part, by hormones (e.g., gastrin and serotonin).
Tonic contraction of the puborectalis muscle, which forms a sling around the rectoanal junction, is important to maintain continence; during defecation, sacral parasympathetic nerves relax this muscle, facilitating the straightening of the rectoanal angle (Fig. 55-1). Distention of the rectum results in transient relaxation of the internal anal sphincter via intrinsic and reflex sympathetic innervation. As sigmoid and rectal contractions, as well as straining (Valsalva maneuver), which increases intraabdominal pressure, increase the pressure within the rectum, the rectosigmoid angle opens by >15°. Voluntary relaxation of the external anal sphincter (striated muscle innervated by the pudendal nerve) in response to the sensation produced by distention permits the evacuation of feces. Defecation can also be delayed voluntarily by contraction of the external anal sphincter.
Sagittal view of the anorectum (A) at rest and (B) during straining to defecate. Continence is maintained by normal rectal sensation and tonic contraction of the internal anal sphincter and the puborectalis muscle, which wraps around the anorectum, maintaining an anorectal angle between 80° and 110°. During defecation, the pelvic floor muscles (including the puborectalis) relax, allowing the anorectal angle to straighten by at least 15°, and the perineum descends by 1–3.5 cm. The external anal sphincter also relaxes and reduces pressure on the anal canal. (Reproduced with permission from A Lembo, M Camilleri: N Engl J Med 349:1360, 2003.)
Diarrhea is loosely defined as passage of abnormally liquid or unformed stools at an increased frequency. For adults on a typical Western diet, stool weight >200 g/d can generally be considered diarrheal. Diarrhea may be further defined as acute if <2 weeks, persistent if 2–4 weeks, and chronic if >4 weeks in duration.
Two common conditions, usually associated with the passage of stool totaling <200 g/d, must be distinguished from diarrhea, because diagnostic and therapeutic algorithms differ. Pseudodiarrhea, or the frequent passage of small volumes of stool, is often associated with rectal urgency, tenesmus, or a feeling of incomplete evacuation, and accompanies IBS or proctitis. Fecal incontinence is the involuntary discharge of rectal contents and is most often caused by neuromuscular disorders or structural anorectal problems. Diarrhea and urgency, especially if severe, may aggravate or cause incontinence. Pseudodiarrhea and fecal incontinence occur at prevalence rates comparable to or higher than that of chronic diarrhea and should always be considered in patients complaining of “diarrhea.” Overflow diarrhea may occur in nursing home patients due to fecal impaction that is readily detectable by rectal examination. A careful history and physical examination generally allow these conditions to be discriminated from true diarrhea.
More than 90% of cases of acute diarrhea are caused by infectious agents; these cases are often accompanied by vomiting, fever, and abdominal pain. The remaining 10% or so are caused by medications, toxic ingestions, ischemia, food indiscretions, and other conditions.
Most infectious diarrheas are acquired by fecal-oral transmission or, more commonly, via ingestion of food or water contaminated with pathogens from human or animal feces. In the immunocompetent person, the resident fecal microflora, containing >500 taxonomically distinct species, are rarely the source of diarrhea and may actually play a role in suppressing the growth of ingested pathogens. Disturbances of flora by antibiotics can lead to diarrhea by reducing the digestive function or by allowing the overgrowth of pathogens, such as Clostridium difficile (Chap. 161). Acute infection or injury occurs when the ingested agent overwhelms or bypasses the host’s mucosal immune and nonimmune (gastric acid, digestive enzymes, mucus secretion, peristalsis, and suppressive resident flora) defenses. Established clinical associations with specific enteropathogens may offer diagnostic clues.
In the United States, five high-risk groups are recognized:
Travelers. Nearly 40% of tourists to endemic regions of Latin America, Africa, and Asia develop so-called traveler’s diarrhea, most commonly due to enterotoxigenic or enteroaggregative Escherichia coli as well as to Campylobacter, Shigella, Aeromonas, norovirus, Coronavirus, and Salmonella. Visitors to Russia (especially St. Petersburg) may have increased risk of Giardia-associated diarrhea; visitors to Nepal may acquire Cyclospora. Campers, backpackers, and swimmers in wilderness areas may become infected with Giardia. Cruise ships may be affected by outbreaks of gastroenteritis caused by agents such as norovirus.
Consumers of certain foods. Diarrhea closely following food consumption at a picnic, banquet, or restaurant may suggest infection with Salmonella, Campylobacter, or Shigella from chicken; enterohemorrhagic E. coli (O157:H7) from undercooked hamburger; Bacillus cereus from fried rice or other reheated food; Staphylococcus aureus or Salmonella from mayonnaise or creams; Salmonella from eggs; Listeria from uncooked foods or soft cheeses; and Vibrio species, Salmonella, or acute hepatitis A from seafood, especially if raw. State departments of public health issue communications regarding food-related illnesses, which may have originated domestically or been imported, but ultimately cause epidemics in the United States (e.g., the Cyclospora epidemic of 2013 in midwestern states that resulted from bagged salads).
Immunodeficient persons. Individuals at risk for diarrhea include those with either primary immunodeficiency (e.g., IgA deficiency, common variable hypogammaglobulinemia, chronic granulomatous disease) or the much more common secondary immunodeficiency states (e.g., AIDS, senescence, pharmacologic suppression). Common enteric pathogens often cause a more severe and protracted diarrheal illness, and, particularly in persons with AIDS, opportunistic infections, such as by Mycobacterium species, certain viruses (cytomegalovirus, adenovirus, and herpes simplex), and protozoa (Cryptosporidium, Isospora belli, Microsporida, and Blastocystis hominis) may also play a role (Chap. 226). In patients with AIDS, agents transmitted venereally per rectum (e.g., Neisseria gonorrhoeae, Treponema pallidum, Chlamydia) may contribute to proctocolitis. Persons with hemochromatosis are especially prone to invasive, even fatal, enteric infections with Vibrio species and Yersinia infections and should avoid raw fish.
Daycare attendees and their family members. Infections with Shigella, Giardia, Cryptosporidium, rotavirus, and other agents are very common and should be considered.
Institutionalized persons. Infectious diarrhea is one of the most frequent categories of nosocomial infections in many hospitals and long-term care facilities; the causes are a variety of microorganisms but most commonly C. difficile. C. difficile can affect those with no history of antibiotic use and may be acquired in the community.
The pathophysiology underlying acute diarrhea by infectious agents produces specific clinical features that may also be helpful in diagnosis (Table 55-2). Profuse, watery diarrhea secondary to small-bowel hypersecretion occurs with ingestion of preformed bacterial toxins, enterotoxin-producing bacteria, and enteroadherent pathogens. Diarrhea associated with marked vomiting and minimal or no fever may occur abruptly within a few hours after ingestion of the former two types; vomiting is usually less, abdominal cramping or bloating is greater, and fever is higher with the latter. Cytotoxin-producing and invasive microorganisms all cause high fever and abdominal pain. Invasive bacteria and Entamoeba histolytica often cause bloody diarrhea (referred to as dysentery). Yersinia invades the terminal ileal and proximal colon mucosa and may cause especially severe abdominal pain with tenderness mimicking acute appendicitis.
Finally, infectious diarrhea may be associated with systemic manifestations. Reactive arthritis (formerly known as Reiter’s syndrome), arthritis, urethritis, and conjunctivitis may accompany or follow infections by Salmonella, Campylobacter, Shigella, and Yersinia. Yersiniosis may also lead to an autoimmune-type thyroiditis, pericarditis, and glomerulonephritis. Both enterohemorrhagic E. coli (O157:H7) and Shigella can lead to the hemolytic-uremic syndrome with an attendant high mortality rate. The syndrome of postinfectious IBS has now been recognized as a complication of infectious diarrhea. Similarly, acute gastroenteritis may precede the diagnosis of celiac disease or Crohn’s disease. Acute diarrhea can also be a major symptom of several systemic infections including viral hepatitis, listeriosis, legionellosis, and toxic shock syndrome.
Side effects from medications are probably the most common noninfectious causes of acute diarrhea, and etiology may be suggested by a temporal association between use and symptom onset. Although innumerable medications may produce diarrhea, some of the more frequently incriminated include antibiotics, cardiac antidysrhythmics, antihypertensives, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), certain antidepressants, chemotherapeutic agents, bronchodilators, antacids, and laxatives. Occlusive or nonocclusive ischemic colitis typically occurs in persons >50 years; often presents as acute lower abdominal pain preceding watery, then bloody diarrhea; and generally results in acute inflammatory changes in the sigmoid or left colon while sparing the rectum. Acute diarrhea may accompany colonic diverticulitis and graft-versus-host disease. Acute diarrhea, often associated with systemic compromise, can follow ingestion of toxins including organophosphate insecticides; amanita and other mushrooms; arsenic; and preformed environmental toxins in seafood, such as ciguatera and scombroid. Acute anaphylaxis to food ingestion can have a similar presentation. Conditions causing chronic diarrhea can also be confused with acute diarrhea early in their course. This confusion may occur with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and some of the other inflammatory chronic diarrheas that may have an abrupt rather than insidious onset and exhibit features that mimic infection.
TABLE 55-2Association Between Pathobiology of Causative Agents and Clinical Features in Acute Infectious Diarrhea ||Download (.pdf) TABLE 55-2Association Between Pathobiology of Causative Agents and Clinical Features in Acute Infectious Diarrhea
|Pathobiology/Agents ||Incubation Period ||Vomiting ||Abdominal Pain ||Fever ||Diarrhea |
|Toxin producers || || || || || |
| Preformed toxin || || || || || |
| Bacillus cereus, Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens || |
|3–4+ ||1–2+ ||0–1+ ||3–4+, watery |
| Enterotoxin || || || || || |
| Vibrio cholerae, enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Aeromonas species ||8–72 h ||2–4+ ||1–2+ ||0–1+ ||3–4+, watery |
| Enteroadherent || || || || || |
| Enteropathogenic and enteroadherent E. coli, Giardia organisms, cryptosporidiosis, helminths ||1–8 d ||0–1+ ||1–3+ ||0–2+ ||1–2+, watery, mushy |
| Cytotoxin producers || || || || || |
| C. difficile ||1–3 d ||0–1+ ||3–4+ ||1–2+ ||1–3+, usually watery, occasionally bloody |
| Hemorrhagic E. coli ||12–72 h ||0–1+ ||3–4+ ||1–2+ ||1–3+, initially watery, quickly bloody |
| Invasive organisms || || || || || |
| Minimal inflammation || || || || || |
| Rotavirus and norovirus ||1–3 d ||1–3+ ||2–3+ ||3–4+ ||1–3+, watery |
| Variable inflammation || || || || || |
| Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Aeromonas species, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, Yersinia ||12 h–11 d ||0–3+ ||2–4+ ||3–4+ ||1–4+, watery or bloody |
| Severe inflammation || || || || || |
| Shigella species, enteroinvasive E. coli, Entamoeba histolytica ||12 h–8 d ||0–1+ ||3–4+ ||3–4+ ||1–2+, bloody |
APPROACH TO THE PATIENT: Acute Diarrhea
The decision to evaluate acute diarrhea depends on its severity and duration and on various host factors (Fig. 55-2). Most episodes of acute diarrhea are mild and self-limited and do not justify the cost and potential morbidity rate of diagnostic or pharmacologic interventions. Indications for evaluation include profuse diarrhea with dehydration, grossly bloody stools, fever ≥38.5°C (≥101°F), duration >48 h without improvement, recent antibiotic use, new community outbreaks, associated severe abdominal pain in patients >50 years, and elderly (≥70 years) or immunocompromised patients. In some cases of moderately severe febrile diarrhea associated with fecal leukocytes (or increased fecal levels of the leukocyte proteins, such as calprotectin) or with gross blood, a diagnostic evaluation might be avoided in favor of an empirical antibiotic trial (see below).
The cornerstone of diagnosis in those suspected of severe acute infectious diarrhea is microbiologic analysis of the stool. Workup includes cultures for bacterial and viral pathogens, direct inspection for ova and parasites, and immunoassays for certain bacterial toxins (C. difficile), viral antigens (rotavirus), and protozoal antigens (Giardia, E. histolytica). The aforementioned clinical and epidemiologic associations may assist in focusing the evaluation. If a particular pathogen or set of possible pathogens is so implicated, then either the whole panel of routine studies may not be necessary or, in some instances, special cultures may be appropriate as for enterohemorrhagic and other types of E. coli, Vibrio species, and Yersinia. Molecular diagnosis of pathogens in stool can be made by identification of unique DNA sequences; and evolving microarray technologies have led to more rapid, sensitive, specific, and cost-effective diagnosis.
Persistent diarrhea is commonly due to Giardia (Chap. 247), but additional causative organisms that should be considered include C. difficile (especially if antibiotics had been administered), E. histolytica, Cryptosporidium, Campylobacter, and others. If stool studies are unrevealing, flexible sigmoidoscopy with biopsies and upper endoscopy with duodenal aspirates and biopsies may be indicated. Brainerd diarrhea is an increasingly recognized entity characterized by an abrupt-onset diarrhea that persists for at least 4 weeks, but may last 1–3 years, and is thought to be of infectious origin. It may be associated with subtle inflammation of the distal small intestine or proximal colon.
Structural examination by sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy, or abdominal computed tomography (CT) scanning (or other imaging approaches) may be appropriate in patients with uncharacterized persistent diarrhea to exclude IBD or as an initial approach in patients with suspected noninfectious acute diarrhea such as might be caused by ischemic colitis, diverticulitis, or partial bowel obstruction.
Algorithm for the management of acute diarrhea. Consider empirical treatment before evaluation with (*) metronidazole and with (†) quinolone. WBCs, white blood cells.
TREATMENT Acute Diarrhea
Fluid and electrolyte replacement are of central importance to all forms of acute diarrhea. Fluid replacement alone may suffice for mild cases. Oral sugar-electrolyte solutions (iso-osmolar sport drinks or designed formulations) should be instituted promptly with severe diarrhea to limit dehydration, which is the major cause of death. Profoundly dehydrated patients, especially infants and the elderly, require IV rehydration.
In moderately severe nonfebrile and nonbloody diarrhea, antimotility and antisecretory agents such as loperamide can be useful adjuncts to control symptoms. Such agents should be avoided with febrile dysentery, which may be exacerbated or prolonged by them. Bismuth subsalicylate may reduce symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea but should not be used to treat immunocompromised patients or those with renal impairment because of the risk of bismuth encephalopathy.
Judicious use of antibiotics is appropriate in selected instances of acute diarrhea and may reduce its severity and duration (Fig. 55-2). Many physicians treat moderately to severely ill patients with febrile dysentery empirically without diagnostic evaluation using a quinolone, such as ciprofloxacin (500 mg bid for 3–5 d). Empirical treatment can also be considered for suspected giardiasis with metronidazole (250 mg qid for 7 d). Selection of antibiotics and dosage regimens are otherwise dictated by specific pathogens, geographic patterns of resistance, and conditions found (Chaps. 160, 186, and 190–196). Antibiotic coverage is indicated, whether or not a causative organism is discovered, in patients who are immunocompromised, have mechanical heart valves or recent vascular grafts, or are elderly. Bismuth subsalicylate may reduce the frequency of traveler’s diarrhea. Antibiotic prophylaxis is only indicated for certain patients traveling to high-risk countries in whom the likelihood or seriousness of acquired diarrhea would be especially high, including those with immunocompromise, IBD, hemochromatosis, or gastric achlorhydria. Use of ciprofloxacin, azithromycin, or rifaximin may reduce bacterial diarrhea in such travelers by 90%, though rifaximin is not suitable for invasive disease, but rather as treatment for uncomplicated traveler’s diarrhea. Finally, physicians should be vigilant to identify if an outbreak of diarrheal illness is occurring and to alert the public health authorities promptly. This may reduce the ultimate size of the affected population.
Diarrhea lasting >4 weeks warrants evaluation to exclude serious underlying pathology. In contrast to acute diarrhea, most of the causes of chronic diarrhea are noninfectious. The classification of chronic diarrhea by pathophysiologic mechanism facilitates a rational approach to management, although many diseases cause diarrhea by more than one mechanism (Table 55-3).
Secretory diarrheas are due to derangements in fluid and electrolyte transport across the enterocolonic mucosa. They are characterized clinically by watery, large-volume fecal outputs that are typically painless and persist with fasting. Because there is no malabsorbed solute, stool osmolality is accounted for by normal endogenous electrolytes with no fecal osmotic gap.
Side effects from regular ingestion of drugs and toxins are the most common secretory causes of chronic diarrhea. Hundreds of prescription and over-the-counter medications (see earlier section, “Acute Diarrhea, Other Causes”) may produce diarrhea. Surreptitious or habitual use of stimulant laxatives (e.g., senna, cascara, bisacodyl, ricinoleic acid [castor oil]) must also be considered. Chronic ethanol consumption may cause a secretory-type diarrhea due to enterocyte injury with impaired sodium and water absorption as well as rapid transit and other alterations. Inadvertent ingestion of certain environmental toxins (e.g., arsenic) may lead to chronic rather than acute forms of diarrhea. Certain bacterial infections may occasionally persist and be associated with a secretory-type diarrhea.
BOWEL RESECTION, MUCOSAL DISEASE, OR ENTEROCOLIC FISTULA
These conditions may result in a secretory-type diarrhea because of inadequate surface for reabsorption of secreted fluids and electrolytes. Unlike other secretory diarrheas, this subset of conditions tends to worsen with eating. With disease (e.g., Crohn’s ileitis) or resection of <100 cm of terminal ileum, dihydroxy bile acids may escape absorption and stimulate colonic secretion (cholerheic diarrhea). This mechanism may contribute to so-called idiopathic secretory diarrhea or bile acid diarrhea (BAD), in which bile acids are functionally malabsorbed from a normal-appearing terminal ileum. This idiopathic bile acid malabsorption (BAM) may account for an average of 40% of unexplained chronic diarrhea. Reduced negative feedback regulation of bile acid synthesis in hepatocytes by fibroblast growth factor 19 (FGF-19) produced by ileal enterocytes results in a degree of bile-acid synthesis that exceeds the normal capacity for ileal reabsorption, producing BAD. An alternative cause of BAD is a genetic variation in the receptor proteins (β-klotho and fibroblast growth factor 4) on the hepatocyte that normally mediate the effect of FGF-19. Dysfunction of these proteins prevents FGF-19 inhibition of hepatocyte bile acid synthesis.
Partial bowel obstruction, ostomy stricture, or fecal impaction may paradoxically lead to increased fecal output due to fluid hypersecretion.
TABLE 55-3Major Causes of Chronic Diarrhea According to Predominant Pathophysiologic Mechanism ||Download (.pdf) TABLE 55-3Major Causes of Chronic Diarrhea According to Predominant Pathophysiologic Mechanism
|Secretory Causes |
| Exogenous stimulant laxatives |
| Chronic ethanol ingestion |
| Other drugs and toxins |
| Endogenous laxatives (dihydroxy bile acids) |
| Idiopathic secretory diarrhea or bile acid diarrhea |
| Certain bacterial infections |
| Bowel resection, disease, or fistula (↓ absorption) |
| Partial bowel obstruction or fecal impaction |
| Hormone-producing tumors (carcinoid, VIPoma, medullary cancer of thyroid, mastocytosis, gastrinoma, colorectal villous adenoma) |
| Addison’s disease |
| Congenital electrolyte absorption defects |
|Osmotic Causes |
| Osmotic laxatives (Mg2+, PO4–3, SO4–2) |
| Lactase and other disaccharide deficiencies |
| Nonabsorbable carbohydrates (sorbitol, lactulose, polyethylene glycol) |
| Gluten and FODMAP intolerance |
|Steatorrheal Causes |
| Intraluminal maldigestion (pancreatic exocrine insufficiency, bacterial overgrowth, bariatric surgery, liver disease) |
| Mucosal malabsorption (celiac sprue, Whipple’s disease, infections, abetalipoproteinemia, ischemia, drug-induced enteropathy) |
| Postmucosal obstruction (1° or 2° lymphatic obstruction) |
|Inflammatory Causes |
| Idiopathic inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s, chronic ulcerative colitis) |
| Lymphocytic and collagenous colitis |
| Immune-related mucosal disease (1° or 2° immunodeficiencies, food allergy, eosinophilic gastroenteritis, graft-versus-host disease) |
| Infections (invasive bacteria, viruses, and parasites, Brainerd diarrhea) |
| Radiation injury |
| Gastrointestinal malignancies |
|Dysmotile Causes |
| Irritable bowel syndrome (including postinfectious IBS) |
| Visceral neuromyopathies |
| Hyperthyroidism |
| Drugs (prokinetic agents) |
| Postvagotomy |
|Factitial Causes |
| Munchausen |
| Eating disorders |
|Iatrogenic Causes |
| Cholecystectomy |
| Ileal resection |
| Bariatric surgery |
| Vagotomy, fundoplication |
Although uncommon, the classic examples of secretory diarrhea are those mediated by hormones. Metastatic gastrointestinal carcinoid tumors or, rarely, primary bronchial carcinoids may produce watery diarrhea alone or as part of the carcinoid syndrome that comprises episodic flushing, wheezing, dyspnea, and right-sided valvular heart disease. Diarrhea is due to the release into the circulation of potent intestinal secretagogues including serotonin, histamine, prostaglandins, and various kinins. Pellagra-like skin lesions may rarely occur as the result of serotonin overproduction with niacin depletion. Gastrinoma, one of the most common neuroendocrine tumors, most typically presents with refractory peptic ulcers, but diarrhea occurs in up to one-third of cases and may be the only clinical manifestation in 10%. While other secretagogues released with gastrin may play a role, the diarrhea most often results from fat maldigestion owing to pancreatic enzyme inactivation by low intraduodenal pH. The watery diarrhea hypokalemia achlorhydria syndrome, also called pancreatic cholera, is due to a non-β cell pancreatic adenoma, referred to as a VIPoma, that secretes VIP and a host of other peptide hormones including pancreatic polypeptide, secretin, gastrin, gastrin-inhibitory polypeptide (also called glucose-dependent insulinotropic peptide), neurotensin, calcitonin, and prostaglandins. The secretory diarrhea is often massive with stool volumes >3 L/d; daily volumes as high as 20 L have been reported. Life-threatening dehydration; neuromuscular dysfunction from associated hypokalemia, hypomagnesemia, or hypercalcemia; flushing; and hyperglycemia may accompany a VIPoma. Medullary carcinoma of the thyroid may present with watery diarrhea caused by calcitonin, other secretory peptides, or prostaglandins. Prominent diarrhea is often associated with metastatic disease and poor prognosis. Systemic mastocytosis, which may be associated with the skin lesion urticaria pigmentosa, may cause diarrhea that is either secretory and mediated by histamine or inflammatory due to intestinal infiltration by mast cells. Large colorectal villous adenomas may rarely be associated with a secretory diarrhea that may cause hypokalemia, can be inhibited by NSAIDs, and are apparently mediated by prostaglandins.
CONGENITAL DEFECTS IN ION ABSORPTION
Rarely, defects in specific carriers associated with ion absorption cause watery diarrhea from birth. These disorders include defective Cl–/HCO3– exchange (congenital chloridorrhea) with alkalosis (which results from a mutated DRA [down-regulated in adenoma] gene) and defective Na+/H+ exchange (congenital sodium diarrhea), which results from a mutation in the NHE3 (sodium-hydrogen exchanger) gene and results in acidosis.
Some hormone deficiencies may be associated with watery diarrhea, such as occurs with adrenocortical insufficiency (Addison’s disease) that may be accompanied by skin hyperpigmentation.
Osmotic diarrhea occurs when ingested, poorly absorbable, osmotically active solutes draw enough fluid into the lumen to exceed the reabsorptive capacity of the colon. Fecal water output increases in proportion to such a solute load. Osmotic diarrhea characteristically ceases with fasting or with discontinuation of the causative agent.
Ingestion of magnesium-containing antacids, health supplements, or laxatives may induce osmotic diarrhea typified by a stool osmotic gap (>50 mosmol/L): serum osmolarity (typically 290 mosmol/kg) – (2 × [fecal sodium + potassium concentration]). Measurement of fecal osmolarity is no longer recommended because, even when measured immediately after evacuation, it may be erroneous because carbohydrates are metabolized by colonic bacteria, causing an increase in osmolarity.
Carbohydrate malabsorption due to acquired or congenital defects in brush-border disaccharidases and other enzymes leads to osmotic diarrhea with a low pH. One of the most common causes of chronic diarrhea in adults is lactase deficiency, which affects three-fourths of nonwhites worldwide and 5–30% of persons in the United States; the total lactose load at any one time influences the symptoms experienced. Most patients learn to avoid milk products without requiring treatment with enzyme supplements. Some sugars, such as sorbitol, lactulose, or fructose, are frequently malabsorbed, and diarrhea ensues with ingestion of medications, gum, or candies sweetened with these poorly or incompletely absorbed sugars.
WHEAT AND FODMAP INTOLERANCE
Chronic diarrhea, bloating, and abdominal pain are recognized as symptoms of nonceliac gluten intolerance (which is associated with impaired intestinal or colonic barrier function) and intolerance of fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols (FODMAPs). The latter’s effects represent the interaction between the GI microbiome and the nutrients.
Fat malabsorption may lead to greasy, foul-smelling, difficult-to-flush diarrhea often associated with weight loss and nutritional deficiencies due to concomitant malabsorption of amino acids and vitamins. Increased fecal output is caused by the osmotic effects of fatty acids, especially after bacterial hydroxylation, and, to a lesser extent, by the neutral fat. Quantitatively, steatorrhea is defined as stool fat exceeding the normal 7 g/d; rapid-transit diarrhea may result in fecal fat up to 14 g/d; daily fecal fat averages 15–25 g with small-intestinal diseases and is often >32 g with pancreatic exocrine insufficiency. Intraluminal maldigestion, mucosal malabsorption, or lymphatic obstruction may produce steatorrhea.
This condition most commonly results from pancreatic exocrine insufficiency, which occurs when >90% of pancreatic secretory function is lost. Chronic pancreatitis, usually a sequel of ethanol abuse, most frequently causes pancreatic insufficiency. Other causes include cystic fibrosis; pancreatic duct obstruction; and, rarely, somatostatinoma. Bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine may deconjugate bile acids and alter micelle formation, impairing fat digestion; it occurs with stasis from a blind-loop, small-bowel diverticulum or dysmotility and is especially likely in the elderly. Finally, cirrhosis or biliary obstruction may lead to mild steatorrhea due to deficient intraluminal bile acid concentration.
Mucosal malabsorption occurs from a variety of enteropathies, but it most commonly occurs from celiac disease. This gluten-sensitive enteropathy affects all ages and is characterized by villous atrophy and crypt hyperplasia in the proximal small bowel and can present with fatty diarrhea associated with multiple nutritional deficiencies of varying severity. Celiac disease is much more frequent than previously thought; it affects ∼1% of the population, frequently presents without steatorrhea, can mimic IBS, and has many other GI and extraintestinal manifestations. Tropical sprue may produce a similar histologic and clinical syndrome but occurs in residents of or travelers to tropical climates; abrupt onset and response to antibiotics suggest an infectious etiology. Whipple’s disease, due to the bacillus Tropheryma whipplei and histiocytic infiltration of the small-bowel mucosa, is a less common cause of steatorrhea that most typically occurs in young or middle-aged men; it is frequently associated with arthralgias, fever, lymphadenopathy, and extreme fatigue, and it may affect the CNS and endocardium. A similar clinical and histologic picture results from Mycobacterium avium-intracellulare infection in patients with AIDS. Abetalipoproteinemia is a rare defect of chylomicron formation and fat malabsorption in children, associated with acanthocytic erythrocytes, ataxia, and retinitis pigmentosa. Several other conditions may cause mucosal malabsorption including infections, especially with protozoa such as Giardia; numerous medications (e.g., olmesartan, mycophenolate mofetil, colchicine, cholestyramine, neomycin); amyloidosis; and chronic ischemia.
POSTMUCOSAL LYMPHATIC OBSTRUCTION
The pathophysiology of this condition, which is due to the rare congenital intestinal lymphangiectasia or to acquired lymphatic obstruction secondary to trauma, tumor, cardiac disease or infection, leads to the unique constellation of fat malabsorption with enteric losses of protein (often causing edema) and lymphocytopenia. Carbohydrate and amino acid absorption are preserved.
Inflammatory diarrheas are generally accompanied by pain, fever, bleeding, or other manifestations of inflammation. The mechanism of diarrhea may not only be exudation but, depending on lesion site, may include fat malabsorption, disrupted fluid/electrolyte absorption, and hypersecretion or hypermotility from release of cytokines and other inflammatory mediators. The unifying feature on stool analysis is the presence of leukocytes or leukocyte-derived proteins such as calprotectin. With severe inflammation, exudative protein loss can lead to anasarca (generalized edema). Any middle-aged or older person with chronic inflammatory-type diarrhea, especially with blood, should be carefully evaluated to exclude a colorectal tumor.
IDIOPATHIC INFLAMMATORY BOWEL DISEASE
The illnesses in this category, which include Crohn’s disease and chronic ulcerative colitis, are among the most common organic causes of chronic diarrhea in adults and range in severity from mild to fulminant and life-threatening. They may be associated with uveitis, polyarthralgias, cholestatic liver disease (primary sclerosing cholangitis), and skin lesions (erythema nodosum, pyoderma gangrenosum). Microscopic colitis, including both lymphocytic and collagenous colitis, is an increasingly recognized cause of chronic watery diarrhea, especially in middle-aged women and those on NSAIDs, statins, proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs); biopsy of a normal-appearing colon is required for histologic diagnosis. It may coexist with symptoms suggesting IBS or with celiac sprue or drug-induced enteropathy. It typically responds well to anti-inflammatory drugs (e.g., bismuth), to the opioid agonist loperamide, or to budesonide.
PRIMARY OR SECONDARY FORMS OF IMMUNODEFICIENCY
Immunodeficiency may lead to prolonged infectious diarrhea. With selective IgA deficiency or common variable hypogammaglobulinemia, diarrhea is particularly prevalent and often the result of giardiasis, bacterial overgrowth, or sprue.
Eosinophil infiltration of the mucosa, muscularis, or serosa at any level of the GI tract may cause diarrhea, pain, vomiting, or ascites. Affected patients often have an atopic history, Charcot-Leyden crystals due to extruded eosinophil contents may be seen on microscopic inspection of stool, and peripheral eosinophilia is present in 50–75% of patients. While hypersensitivity to certain foods occurs in adults, true food allergy causing chronic diarrhea is rare.
Chronic inflammatory diarrhea may be caused by radiation enterocolitis, chronic graft-versus-host disease, Behçet’s syndrome, and Cronkhite-Canada syndrome, among others.
Rapid transit may accompany many diarrheas as a secondary or contributing phenomenon, but primary dysmotility is an unusual etiology of true diarrhea. Stool features often suggest a secretory diarrhea, but mild steatorrhea of up to 14 g of fat per day can be produced by maldigestion from rapid transit alone. Hyperthyroidism, carcinoid syndrome, and certain drugs (e.g., prostaglandins, prokinetic agents) may produce hypermotility with resultant diarrhea. Primary visceral neuromyopathies or idiopathic acquired intestinal pseudoobstruction may lead to stasis with secondary bacterial overgrowth causing diarrhea. Diabetic diarrhea, often accompanied by peripheral and generalized autonomic neuropathies, may occur in part because of intestinal dysmotility.
The exceedingly common IBS (10% point prevalence, 1–2% per year incidence) is characterized by disturbed intestinal and colonic motor and sensory responses to various stimuli. Symptoms of stool frequency typically cease at night, alternate with periods of constipation, are accompanied by abdominal pain relieved with defecation, and rarely result in weight loss.
Factitial diarrhea accounts for up to 15% of unexplained diarrheas referred to tertiary care centers. Either as a form of Munchausen syndrome (deception or self-injury for secondary gain) or eating disorders, some patients covertly self-administer laxatives alone or in combination with other medications (e.g., diuretics) or surreptitiously add water or urine to stool sent for analysis. Such patients are typically women, often with histories of psychiatric illness, and disproportionately from careers in health care. Hypotension and hypokalemia are common co-presenting features. The evaluation of such patients may be difficult: contamination of the stool with water or urine is suggested by very low or high stool osmolarity, respectively. Such patients often deny this possibility when confronted, but they do benefit from psychiatric counseling when they acknowledge their behavior.
APPROACH TO THE PATIENT: Chronic Diarrhea
The laboratory tools available to evaluate the very common problem of chronic diarrhea are extensive, and many are costly and invasive. As such, the diagnostic evaluation must be rationally directed by a careful history, including medications, and physical examination (Fig. 55-3A). When this strategy is unrevealing, simple triage tests are often warranted to direct the choice of more complex investigations (Fig. 55-3B). The history, physical examination (Table 55-4), and routine blood studies should attempt to characterize the mechanism of diarrhea, identify diagnostically helpful associations, and assess the patient’s fluid/electrolyte and nutritional status. Patients should be questioned about the onset, duration, pattern, aggravating (especially diet) and relieving factors, and stool characteristics of their diarrhea. The presence or absence of fecal incontinence, fever, weight loss, pain, certain exposures (travel, medications, contacts with diarrhea), and common extraintestinal manifestations (skin changes, arthralgias, oral aphthous ulcers) should be noted. A family history of IBD or sprue may indicate those possibilities. Physical findings may offer clues such as a thyroid mass, wheezing, heart murmurs, edema, hepatomegaly, abdominal masses, lymphadenopathy, mucocutaneous abnormalities, perianal fistulas, or anal sphincter laxity. Peripheral blood leukocytosis, elevated sedimentation rate, or C-reactive protein suggests inflammation; anemia reflects blood loss or nutritional deficiencies; or eosinophilia may occur with parasitoses, neoplasia, collagen-vascular disease, allergy, or eosinophilic gastroenteritis. Blood chemistries may demonstrate electrolyte, hepatic, or other metabolic disturbances. Measuring IgA tissue transglutaminase antibodies may help detect celiac disease. Bile acid diarrhea is confirmed by a scintigraphic radiolabeled bile acid retention test; however, this is not available in many countries. Alternative approaches are a screening blood test (serum C4 or FGF-19), measurement of fecal bile acids, or a therapeutic trial with a bile acid sequestrant (e.g., cholestyramine or colesevelam).
A therapeutic trial is often appropriate, definitive, and highly cost-effective when a specific diagnosis is suggested on the initial physician encounter. For example, chronic watery diarrhea, which ceases with fasting in an otherwise healthy young adult, may justify a trial of a lactose-restricted diet; bloating and diarrhea persisting since a mountain backpacking trip may warrant a trial of metronidazole for likely giardiasis; and postprandial diarrhea persisting following resection of terminal ileum might be due to bile acid malabsorption and be treated with cholestyramine or colesevelam before further evaluation. Persistent symptoms require additional investigation.
Certain diagnoses may be suggested on the initial encounter (e.g., idiopathic IBD); however, additional focused evaluations may be necessary to confirm the diagnosis and characterize the severity or extent of disease so that treatment can be best guided. Patients suspected of having IBS should be initially evaluated with flexible sigmoidoscopy with colorectal biopsies to exclude IBD, or particularly microscopic colitis, which is clinically indistinguishable from IBS with diarrhea; those with normal findings might be reassured and, as indicated, treated empirically with antispasmodics, antidiarrheals, or antidepressants (e.g., tricyclic agents). Any patient who presents with chronic diarrhea and hematochezia should be evaluated with stool microbiologic studies and colonoscopy.
In an estimated two-thirds of cases, the cause for chronic diarrhea remains unclear after the initial encounter, and further testing is required. Quantitative stool collection and analyses can yield important objective data that may establish a diagnosis or characterize the type of diarrhea as a triage for focused additional studies (Fig. 55-3B). If stool weight is >200 g/d, additional stool analyses should be performed that might include electrolyte concentration, pH, occult blood testing, leukocyte inspection (or leukocyte protein assay), fat quantitation, and laxative screens.
For secretory diarrheas (watery, normal osmotic gap), possible medication-related side effects or surreptitious laxative use should be reconsidered. Microbiologic studies should be done including fecal bacterial cultures (including media for Aeromonas and Plesiomonas), inspection for ova and parasites, and Giardia antigen assay (the most sensitive test for giardiasis). Small-bowel bacterial overgrowth can be excluded by intestinal aspirates with quantitative cultures or with glucose or lactulose breath tests involving measurement of breath hydrogen, methane, or other metabolite. However, interpretation of these breath tests may be confounded by disturbances of intestinal transit. Upper endoscopy and colonoscopy with biopsies and small-bowel x-rays (formerly barium, but increasingly CT with enterography or magnetic resonance with enteroclysis) are helpful to rule out structural or occult inflammatory disease. When suggested by history or other findings, screens for peptide hormones should be pursued (e.g., serum gastrin, VIP, calcitonin, and thyroid hormone/thyroid-stimulating hormone, urinary 5-hydroxyindolacetic acid, histamine).
Further evaluation of osmotic diarrhea should include tests for lactose intolerance and magnesium ingestion, the two most common causes. Low fecal pH suggests carbohydrate malabsorption; lactose malabsorption can be confirmed by lactose breath testing or by a therapeutic trial with lactose exclusion and observation of the effect of lactose challenge (e.g., a liter of milk). Lactase determination on small-bowel biopsy is not generally available. If fecal magnesium or laxative levels are elevated, inadvertent or surreptitious ingestion should be considered and psychiatric help should be sought.
For those with proven fatty diarrhea, endoscopy with small-bowel biopsy (including aspiration for Giardia and quantitative cultures) should be performed; if this procedure is unrevealing, a small-bowel radiograph is often an appropriate next step. If small-bowel studies are negative or if pancreatic disease is suspected, pancreatic exocrine insufficiency should be excluded with direct tests, such as the secretin-cholecystokinin stimulation test or a variation that could be performed endoscopically. In general, indirect tests such as assay of fecal elastase or chymotrypsin activity or a bentiromide test have fallen out of favor because of low sensitivity and specificity.
Chronic inflammatory-type diarrheas should be suspected by the presence of blood or leukocytes in the stool. Such findings warrant stool cultures; inspection for ova and parasites; C. difficile toxin assay; colonoscopy with biopsies; and, if indicated, small-bowel contrast studies.
Chronic diarrhea. A. Initial management based on accompanying symptoms or features. B. Evaluation based on findings from a limited age-appropriate screen for organic disease. Alb, albumin; bm, bowel movement; Hb, hemoglobin; IBS, irritable bowel syndrome; MCH, mean corpuscular hemoglobin; MCV, mean corpuscular volume; OSM, osmolality; pr, per rectum. (Reprinted from M Camilleri: Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2:198, 2004.)
TABLE 55-4Physical Examination in Patients with Chronic Diarrhea ||Download (.pdf) TABLE 55-4Physical Examination in Patients with Chronic Diarrhea
Are there general features to suggest malabsorption or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) such as anemia, dermatitis herpetiformis, edema, or clubbing?
Are there features to suggest underlying autonomic neuropathy or collagen-vascular disease in the pupils, orthostasis, skin, hands, or joints?
Is there an abdominal mass or tenderness?
Are there any abnormalities of rectal mucosa, rectal defects, or altered anal sphincter functions?
Are there any mucocutaneous manifestations of systemic disease such as dermatitis herpetiformis (celiac disease), erythema nodosum (ulcerative colitis), flushing (carcinoid), or oral ulcers for IBD or celiac disease?
TREATMENT Chronic Diarrhea
Treatment of chronic diarrhea depends on the specific etiology and may be curative, suppressive, or empirical. If the cause can be eradicated, treatment is curative as with resection of a colorectal cancer, antibiotic administration for Whipple’s disease or tropical sprue, or discontinuation of a drug. For many chronic conditions, diarrhea can be controlled by suppression of the underlying mechanism. Examples include elimination of dietary lactose for lactase deficiency or gluten for celiac sprue, use of glucocorticoids or other anti-inflammatory agents for idiopathic IBDs, bile acid sequestrants for bile acid malabsorption, PPIs for the gastric hypersecretion of gastrinomas, somatostatin analogues such as octreotide for malignant carcinoid syndrome, prostaglandin inhibitors such as indomethacin for medullary carcinoma of the thyroid, and pancreatic enzyme replacement for pancreatic insufficiency. When the specific cause or mechanism of chronic diarrhea evades diagnosis, empirical therapy may be beneficial. Mild opiates, such as diphenoxylate or loperamide, are often helpful in mild or moderate watery diarrhea. For those with more severe diarrhea, codeine or tincture of opium may be beneficial. Such antimotility agents should be avoided with severe IBD, because toxic megacolon may be precipitated. Clonidine, an α2-adrenergic agonist, may allow control of diabetic diarrhea, although the medication may be poorly tolerated because it causes postural hypotension. The 5-HT3 receptor antagonists (e.g., alosetron) may relieve diarrhea and urgency in patients with IBS diarrhea. For all patients with chronic diarrhea, fluid and electrolyte repletion is an important component of management (see “Acute Diarrhea,” earlier). Replacement of fat-soluble vitamins may also be necessary in patients with chronic steatorrhea.
Constipation is a common complaint in clinical practice and usually refers to persistent, difficult, infrequent, or seemingly incomplete defecation. Because of the wide range of normal bowel habits, constipation is difficult to define precisely. Most persons have at least three bowel movements per week; however, low stool frequency alone is not the sole criterion for the diagnosis of constipation. Many constipated patients have a normal frequency of defecation but complain of excessive straining, hard stools, lower abdominal fullness, or a sense of incomplete evacuation. The individual patient’s symptoms must be analyzed in detail to ascertain what is meant by “constipation” or “difficulty” with defecation.
Stool form and consistency are well correlated with the time elapsed from the preceding defecation. Hard, pellety stools occur with slow transit, whereas loose, watery stools are associated with rapid transit. Both small pellety or very large stools are more difficult to expel than normal stools.
The perception of hard stools or excessive straining is more difficult to assess objectively, and the need for enemas or digital disimpaction is a clinically useful way to corroborate the patient’s perceptions of difficult defecation.
Psychosocial or cultural factors may also be important. A person whose parents attached great importance to daily defecation will become greatly concerned when he or she misses a daily bowel movement; some children withhold stool to gain attention or because of fear of pain from anal irritation; and some adults habitually ignore or delay the call to have a bowel movement.
Pathophysiologically, chronic constipation generally results from inadequate fiber or fluid intake or from disordered colonic transit or anorectal function. These result from neurogastroenterologic disturbance, certain drugs, advancing age, or in association with a large number of systemic diseases that affect the GI tract (Table 55-5). Constipation of recent onset may be a symptom of significant organic disease such as tumor or stricture. In idiopathic constipation, a subset of patients exhibit delayed emptying of the ascending and transverse colon with prolongation of transit (often in the proximal colon) and a reduced frequency of propulsive HAPCs. Outlet obstruction to defecation (also called evacuation disorders) accounts for about a quarter of cases presenting with constipation in tertiary care and may cause delayed colonic transit, which is usually corrected by biofeedback retraining of the disordered defecation. Constipation of any cause may be exacerbated by hospitalization or chronic illnesses that lead to physical or mental impairment and result in inactivity or physical immobility.
APPROACH TO THE PATIENT: Constipation
A careful history should explore the patient’s symptoms and confirm whether he or she is indeed constipated based on frequency (e.g., fewer than three bowel movements per week), consistency (lumpy/hard), excessive straining, prolonged defecation time, or need to support the perineum or digitate the anorectum to facilitate stool evacuation. In the vast majority of cases (probably >90%), there is no underlying cause (e.g., cancer, depression, or hypothyroidism), and constipation responds to ample hydration, exercise, and supplementation of dietary fiber (15–25 g/d). A good diet and medication history and attention to psychosocial issues are key. Physical examination and, particularly, a rectal examination should exclude fecal impaction and most of the important diseases that present with constipation and possibly indicate features suggesting an evacuation disorder (e.g., high anal sphincter tone, failure of perineal descent, or paradoxical puborectalis contraction during straining to simulate stool evacuation).
The presence of weight loss, rectal bleeding, or anemia with constipation mandates either flexible sigmoidoscopy plus barium enema or colonoscopy alone, particularly in patients >40 years, to exclude structural diseases such as cancer or strictures. Colonoscopy alone is most cost-effective in this setting because it provides an opportunity to biopsy mucosal lesions, perform polypectomy, or dilate strictures. Barium enema has advantages over colonoscopy in the patient with isolated constipation because it is less costly and identifies colonic dilation and all significant mucosal lesions or strictures that are likely to present with constipation. Melanosis coli, or pigmentation of the colon mucosa, indicates the use of anthraquinone laxatives such as cascara or senna; however, this is usually apparent from a careful history. An unexpected disorder such as megacolon or cathartic colon may also be detected by colonic radiographs. Measurement of serum calcium, potassium, and thyroid-stimulating hormone levels will identify rare patients with metabolic disorders.
Patients with more troublesome constipation may not respond to fiber alone and may be helped by a bowel-training regimen, which involves taking an osmotic laxative (e.g., magnesium salts, lactulose, sorbitol, polyethylene glycol) and evacuating with enema or suppository (e.g., glycerine or bisacodyl) as needed. After breakfast, a distraction-free 15–20 min on the toilet without straining is encouraged. Excessive straining may lead to development of hemorrhoids, and, if there is weakness of the pelvic floor or injury to the pudendal nerve, may result in obstructed defecation from descending perineum syndrome several years later. Those few who do not benefit from the simple measures delineated above or require long-term treatment or fail to respond to potent laxatives should undergo further investigation (Fig. 55-4). Novel agents that induce secretion (e.g., lubiprostone, a chloride channel activator, or linaclotide, a guanylate cyclase C agonist that activates chloride secretion) are also available.
Algorithm for the management of constipation. abd, abdominal.
TABLE 55-5Causes of Constipation in Adults ||Download (.pdf) TABLE 55-5Causes of Constipation in Adults
|Types of Constipation and Causes ||Examples |
|Recent Onset || |
|Colonic obstruction ||Neoplasm; stricture: ischemic, diverticular, inflammatory |
|Anal sphincter spasm ||Anal fissure, painful hemorrhoids |
|Medications || |
|Chronic || |
|Irritable bowel syndrome ||Constipation-predominant, alternating |
|Medications ||Ca2+ blockers, antidepressants |
|Colonic pseudoobstruction ||Slow-transit constipation, megacolon (rare Hirschsprung’s, Chagas’ diseases) |
|Disorders of rectal evacuation ||Pelvic floor dysfunction; anismus; descending perineum syndrome; rectal mucosal prolapse; rectocele |
|Endocrinopathies ||Hypothyroidism, hypercalcemia, pregnancy |
|Psychiatric disorders ||Depression, eating disorders, drugs |
|Neurologic disease ||Parkinsonism, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury |
|Generalized muscle disease ||Progressive systemic sclerosis |
INVESTIGATION OF SEVERE CONSTIPATION
A small minority (probably <5%) of patients have severe or “intractable” constipation; about 25% have evacuation disorders. These are the patients most likely to require evaluation by gastroenterologists or in referral centers. Further observation of the patient may occasionally reveal a previously unrecognized cause, such as an evacuation disorder, laxative abuse, malingering, or psychological disorder. In these patients, evaluations of the physiologic function of the colon and pelvic floor and of psychological status aid in the rational choice of treatment. Even among these highly selected patients with severe constipation, a cause can be identified in only about one-third of tertiary referral patients, with the others being diagnosed with normal transit constipation.
Measurement of Colonic Transit
Radiopaque marker transit tests are easy, repeatable, generally safe, inexpensive, reliable, and highly applicable in evaluating constipated patients in clinical practice. Several validated methods are very simple. For example, radiopaque markers are ingested; an abdominal flat film taken 5 days later should indicate passage of 80% of the markers out of the colon without the use of laxatives or enemas. This test does not provide useful information about the transit profile of the stomach and small bowel.
Radioscintigraphy with a delayed-release capsule containing radiolabeled particles has been used to noninvasively characterize normal, accelerated, or delayed colonic function over 24–48 h with low radiation exposure. This approach simultaneously assesses gastric, small bowel (which may be important in ∼20% of patients with delayed colonic transit because they reflect a more generalized GI motility disorder), and colonic transit. The disadvantages are the greater cost and the need for specific materials prepared in a nuclear medicine laboratory.
Anorectal and Pelvic Floor Tests
Pelvic floor dysfunction is suggested by the inability to evacuate the rectum, a feeling of persistent rectal fullness, rectal pain, the need to extract stool from the rectum digitally, application of pressure on the posterior wall of the vagina, support of the perineum during straining, and excessive straining. These significant symptoms should be contrasted with the simple sense of incomplete rectal evacuation, which is common in IBS.
Formal psychological evaluation may identify eating disorders, “control issues,” depression, or post-traumatic stress disorders that may respond to cognitive or other intervention and may be important in restoring quality of life to patients who might present with chronic constipation.
A simple clinical test in the office to document a non-relaxing puborectalis muscle is to have the patient strain to expel the index finger during a digital rectal examination. Motion of the puborectalis posteriorly during straining indicates proper coordination of the pelvic floor muscles. Motion anteriorly with paradoxical contraction during simulated evacuation indicates pelvic floor dysfunction.
Measurement of perineal descent is relatively easy to gauge clinically by placing the patient in the left decubitus position and watching the perineum to detect inadequate descent (<1.5 cm, a sign of pelvic floor dysfunction) or perineal ballooning during straining relative to bony landmarks (>4 cm, suggesting excessive perineal descent).
A useful overall test of evacuation is the balloon expulsion test. A balloon-tipped urinary catheter is placed and inflated with 50 mL of water. Normally, a patient can expel it while seated on a toilet or in the left lateral decubitus position. In the lateral position, the weight needed to facilitate expulsion of the balloon is determined; normally, expulsion occurs with <200 g added or unaided within 2 min.
Anorectal manometry, when used in the evaluation of patients with severe constipation, may find an excessively high resting (>80 mmHg) or squeeze anal sphincter tone, suggesting anismus (anal sphincter spasm). This test also identifies rare syndromes, such as adult Hirschsprung’s disease, by the absence of the rectoanal inhibitory reflex.
Defecography (a dynamic barium enema including lateral views obtained during barium expulsion or a magnetic resonance defecogram) reveals “soft abnormalities” in many patients; the most relevant findings are the measured changes in rectoanal angle, anatomic defects of the rectum such as internal mucosal prolapse, and enteroceles or rectoceles. Surgically remediable conditions are identified in only a few patients. These include severe, whole-thickness intussusception with complete outlet obstruction due to funnel-shaped plugging at the anal canal or an extremely large rectocele that fills preferentially during attempts at defecation instead of expulsion of the barium through the anus. In summary, defecography requires an interested and experienced radiologist, and abnormalities are not pathognomonic for pelvic floor dysfunction. The most common cause of outlet obstruction is failure of the puborectalis muscle to relax; this is not identified by barium defecography, but can be demonstrated by magnetic resonance defecography, which provides more information about the structure and function of the pelvic floor, distal colorectum, and anal sphincters.
Neurologic testing (electromyography) is more helpful in the evaluation of patients with incontinence than of those with symptoms suggesting obstructed defecation. The absence of neurologic signs in the lower extremities suggests that any documented denervation of the puborectalis results from pelvic (e.g., obstetric) injury or from stretching of the pudendal nerve by chronic, long-standing straining. Constipation is common among patients with spinal cord injuries, neurologic diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and diabetic neuropathy.
Spinal-evoked responses during electrical rectal stimulation or stimulation of external anal sphincter contraction by applying magnetic stimulation over the lumbosacral cord identify patients with limited sacral neuropathies with sufficient residual nerve conduction to attempt biofeedback training.
In summary, a balloon expulsion test is an important screening test for anorectal dysfunction. Rarely, an anatomic evaluation of the rectum or anal sphincters and an assessment of pelvic floor relaxation are the tools for evaluating patients in whom obstructed defecation is suspected and is associated with symptoms of rectal mucosal prolapse, pressure of the posterior wall of the vagina to facilitate defecation (suggestive of anterior rectocele), or prior pelvic surgery that may be complicated by enterocele.
After the cause of constipation is characterized, a treatment decision can be made. Slow-transit constipation requires aggressive medical or surgical treatment; anismus or pelvic floor dysfunction usually responds to biofeedback management (Fig. 40-4). The remaining ∼60% of patients with constipation has normal colonic transit and can be treated symptomatically. Patients with spinal cord injuries or other neurologic disorders require a dedicated bowel regimen that often includes rectal stimulation, enema therapy, and carefully timed laxative therapy.
Patients with constipation are treated with bulk, osmotic, prokinetic, secretory, and stimulant laxatives including fiber, psyllium, milk of magnesia, lactulose, polyethylene glycol (colonic lavage solution), lubiprostone, linaclotide, and bisacodyl, or, in some countries, prucalopride, a 5-HT4 agonist. If a 3-to 6-month trial of medical therapy fails, unassociated with obstructed defecation, the patients should be considered for laparoscopic colectomy with ileorectostomy; however, this should not be undertaken if there is continued evidence of an evacuation disorder or a generalized GI dysmotility. Referral to a specialized center for further tests of colonic motor function is warranted. The decision to resort to surgery is facilitated in the presence of megacolon and megarectum. The complications after surgery include small-bowel obstruction (11%) and fecal soiling, particularly at night during the first postoperative year. Frequency of defecation is 3–8 per day during the first year, dropping to 1–3 per day from the second year after surgery.
Patients who have a combined (evacuation and transit/motility) disorder should pursue pelvic floor retraining (biofeedback and muscle relaxation), psychological counseling, and dietetic advice first. If symptoms are intractable despite biofeedback and optimized medical therapy, colectomy and ileorectostomy could be considered as long as the evacuation disorder is resolved and optimized medical therapy is unsuccessful. In patients with pelvic floor dysfunction alone, biofeedback training has a 70–80% success rate, measured by the acquisition of comfortable stool habits. Attempts to manage pelvic floor dysfunction with operations (internal anal sphincter or puborectalis muscle division) or injections with botulinum toxin have achieved only mediocre success and have been largely abandoned.