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Quadriplegic Bowel Program

Bowel Program for Spinal Cord Injury

We understand that you are at a time in your life when thinking about going to the bathroom may have been a thing of the past. After spinal cord injury, the function of your body has changed and now you are faced with not only thinking about it but sometimes feeling like your whole life revolves around going to the bathroom. This document will introduce you to the factors that make up a bowel program.

What is a bowel program?

A healthy functioning bowel system is the combination of many factors. In addition to establishing a consistent bowel program, attention to diet and fluid intake, activity, and medications all play a part in maintaining bowel health. A bowel program establishes a regular time to stimulate the bowels to cause a bowel movement. The primary goal of a bowel program is to promote regular emptying of the bowels for cleansing and health. Establishing a bowel program will help prevent involuntary bowel movements, constipation, and impaction of the bowels.

Lower Motor Neuron vs. Upper Motor Neuron Injury

The first step in establishing a bowel program is understanding your spinal cord injury and how it has affected your body.

  • Lower motor neuron (LMN) injuries are usually T12 and below. These injuries are flaccid in nature; the muscles are loose and involuntary bowel movements are very common because the colon has lost its muscle tone. People with LMN injuries may not respond to usual bowel interventions such as digital stimulation or suppositories because the spinal reflex arc is diminished or absent. The goal of bowel care for a person with LMN function is to keep the stool well formed, the rectal vault clear, and to prevent embarrassing accidents. People with this type of injury sometimes have to do a bowel program once or twice a day to keep the lower colon free of stool.
  • Upper motor neuron (UMN) injuries are injuries that are usually T12 and above. These injuries are spastic in nature; muscle spasms are common and the colon is really tight. People with this type of injury usually need to do digital stimulation and use suppositories to help stimulate the reflex to defecate.

Because these injuries are so different, the way you approach the bowel program will vary. With upper motor neuron injuries, the goal is to have soft formed stool, similar in consistency to wet shredded wheat. With lower motor neuron injuries, the goal is to have firm, but not hard, formed stool.

Getting the right consistency...

The goal of the bowel program is to promote regular emptying of the bowels. Many factors play a role in developing the bowel program – all of which affect the consistency of your stool. These factors include:

  • Diet and fluid Intake
  • Activity
  • Medications
  • Timing of the program
  • Positioning and aids used

Diet and Fluid Intake

Eating a variety of foods throughout the day will give your body the nutrients it needs for healthy functioning. Experience also teaches you what kinds of foods are apt to upset your bowel program. A well-balanced high fiber diet and the proper kinds and amounts of fluids will help to make your bowel program a success.


Fiber is extremely important in regulating the bowels. The body does not readily digest fiber so it stays in the colon. Think of fiber as a sponge because it loves to soak up water. If you have enough water in your diet, the fiber becomes soft and bulky and bowel movements are easy to pass. If you don’t have enough water in your diet, the fiber gets really hard and compact and can cause constipation or even an impaction.

After spinal cord injury, Craig Hospital typically recommends 20-25 grams of fiber in your diet every day. Some things that you can do to increase your fiber intake include starting your day with a bowl of high fiber cereal. You will need to start reading the sides of boxes, as not all cereals are created equal. Some cereals will come with 10-12 grams of fiber in each serving. This is great because in one serving you are getting nearly half of your daily fiber goals.

Then for lunch and dinner, you want to choose foods that are healthy and tasty. Choosing whole wheat bread, pasta, or brown rice will give you more fiber than their white counterparts. The Food Guide Pyramid recommends five servings of fruit and five servings of vegetables a day. One serving is equivalent to ½ cup so, depending on the size, one piece of fruit can count as two or three servings. Shoot for about 2 ½ cups of vegetables a day and 2 ½ cups of fruits a day because fruits and vegetables tend to be high in fiber.

Other really high fiber foods you can eat are beans, nuts and seed (almonds, sesame, peanuts, pecans, walnuts), popcorn, and a baked potato with skin


Water is often over-looked as a nutrient. Our bodies are more than 70% water. You can become dehydrated very easily if you are not drinking enough. Dehydration can also increase risk of bladder stones, urinary tract infections, and constipation.

If you increase your fiber you also need to make sure you are getting enough water in your diet. If you don’t have fluid restrictions, we recommend drinking between two to three liters of water every day. This is equivalent to about 66 to 100 oz of water or ½ to ¾ of a gallon every day. One way to monitor how much you drink is to use a water bottle and know how much fluid it holds.

Thirst is not a good sign of dehydration. Isn’t that strange? Many people never feel ‘thirsty’ when they are low on water. So, keep something to drink with you all the time, especially when it is hot outside.Beverages with caffeine do not help meet your water intake needs; in fact, they cause you to lose as much fluid as you are taking in. Watch the color of your urine to make sure that you are drinking enough (pale yellow color is ideal).

Physical Activity

All physical activity stimulates bowel function, whether competitive sports or activities of daily living such as transfers. Just getting up and out of bed is important for overall health and well-being. Participating in sports and fitness is one way of increasing physical activity but even just getting up and going out to school, work or leisure time activities if helpful. However you choose to be active, do it. Activity helps the mind as well as the body….you will feel better overall and keep those bowels moving too.

Sometimes health issues will not allow you to be as active as you once were. For example, if you develop a skin sore and need to be on bed rest, this decrease in activity will slow down the motility of your bowels. This can lead to constipation and other bowel problems. If your activity level changes for any reason, expect that the bowel program will be affected, too. You may need to make adjustments in other areas to maintain the right bowel consistency for your injury level.


The medications you are taking may have side effects that can influence bowel elimination. For example, pain medications can cause constipation while antibiotics can cause diarrhea. Ask your doctor or pharmacist whenever you start a new medication about how it may affect your bowel function.

Sometimes you may be using medications to help the function of your bowels. As with all medications, know the purpose, name, dose, frequency, and any side effects of the medication. Being very consistent with the medications you take is very important and will help you predict the effect they will have on your bowel program.

Timing of the Program

Your bowel program must be done at regular times in order for it to be successful. Therefore, it is important to use the same method at the same time each day. Some people find the time, after the morning or evening meal, to be the most convenient and natural time for a bowel movement. This allows you to take advantage of the normal reflex function of the bowel that increases after eating. The bowel program should last about one hour at most, from insertion of the suppository, if you use one, to clean up.

It will take time to establish a regular bowel program and get your system set up on a regular schedule. It will be important to maintain a regular time for the bowel program to happen because your body will eventually get used to elimination at that time. Try to keep your bowel program time within two hours of your scheduled time. If you skip it or are very late, you will run the risk of experiencing an involuntary bowel movement (when stool comes out accidentally).

Bowel Program Position, Aids Used, and Fingernail Length

Sitting up during your bowel program is the best position so gravity can help in the elimination process. If you must be in bed for your bowel program due to illness, skin problems, or other reasons, then lie on your left side. The large intestine empties to the left side of your stomach so if you must lay down to do the bowel program, laying on your left side works best.

Many people use digital stimulation or aids to assist in the bowel program. When designing your own bowel program decide on the aids that you plan to use and stick with them. The more consistent you are with every aspect of the bowel program the more consistent your results will be. Any change, no matter how small, can have a big impact on your bowel results. Decide how you will do the program and be consistent!

Fingernail length should be no longer than ¼ inch beyond the fingertip. Nails, both natural and artificial, should be kept clean and gloves used. Hands should be washed with each glove change. Polished nails should not be chipped or cracked. This will assist in prevention of physical issues at the anus.

Final Thoughts...

Many factors determine healthy bowel management. Going to the bathroom is necessary for cleansing and health maintenance. Regular emptying of the bowels is the primary goal of a bowel program. Being consistent with your diet, fluids, activity, medications, timing, positioning, and aids will help you achieve the right consistency for your injury and bowel program.

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Revised: 1/2015

This resource is provided as a courtesy of Craig Hospital. For more information, contact the Craig Hospital Nurse Advice Line at 1-800-247-0257.

Disclaimer: The content in this document is intended for general informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. No professional relationship is implied or otherwise established by reading this document. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Many of the resources references are not affiliated with Craig Hospital. Craig Hospital assumes no liability for any third party material or for any action or inaction taken as a result of any content or any suggestions made in this document and should not be relied upon without independent investigation. The information on this page is a public service provided by Craig Hospital and in no way represents a recommendation or endorsement by Craig Hospital.