Changes of denervation in the anal sphincter striated and smooth muscle in patients with neurogenic faecal incontinence are well established. This study aimed to determine if there is also a more proximal visceral autonomic abnormality. Thirty women with purely neurogenic faecal incontinence (prolonged pudendal nerve latencies and an intact sphincter ring) and 12 patients with neuropathic changes together with an anatomical disruption were studied. Two control groups consisted of 18 healthy volunteer women and 17 women with normal innervation but an anatomically disrupted sphincter. Rectal sensation was assessed using balloon distension and electrical mucosal stimulation, and anal sensation by electrical stimulation. Rectal compliance was studied to determine whether sensory changes were primary or caused by altered rectal wall viscoelastic properties. Anal canal pressure changes in response to both rectal distension and rectal electrical stimulation were measured to assess the intrinsic innervation of the internal anal sphincter. Patients with neurogenic incontinence alone had impaired rectal sensation to distension (53.1 v 31.5 ml, p < 0.05, neurogenic v controls) and to electrical stimulation (24.4 v 14.8 mA, p < 0.005). Patients with neurogenic incontinence and sphincter disruption also showed impaired sensation compared with healthy controls (55.8 ml v 31.5 ml, p < 0.05 and 22.9 mA v 14.8 mA, p < 0.05). Patients with only a disrupted sphincter had normal visceral sensation to both types of testing. Both rectal compliance and the response of the internal anal sphincter to rectal distension and electrical stimulation were normal in all patient groups. This study suggests that there is a visceral sensory abnormality in patients with neurogenic incontinence which is not caused by altered rectal compliance. As evaluated in this study the intrinsic innervation of the internal anal sphincter is not affected in this process.
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