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Abstract

Background:

Slow-transit constipation (STC) is a severe disorder of unknown aetiology, which may result from an autonomic or sensory neuropathy. This study aimed to investigate patients with STC for the presence of neural dysfunction, and relate the findings to other factors, including any familial associations.

Methods:

Thirty-three patients with STC were studied using standard neurophysiological tests and a range of quantitative sensory and autonomic tests. The findings were compared with those of 20 matched control subjects and nine diabetic patients with gastrointestinal symptoms.

Results:

Twenty of the 33 patients with STC gave a family history of constipation, including an affected identical twin and Hirschsprung's disease (n = 3). None had abnormalities on neurological examination or nerve conduction studies. Fifteen of the 33 patients had abnormalities on quantitative tests, including all six who required a colectomy. Eleven patients with STC had reduced axon-reflex sweating in the presence of normal sweat gland responses (P< 0·001, all patients with STC versus controls). Twelve patients with STC had small sensory fibre dysfunction, with significantly increased thermal thresholds (cool, P< 0·05; warm, P< 0·01); these included six of nine patients with STC and rectal hyposensation. There were similar findings on quantitative testing in diabetic patients.

Conclusion:

Quantitative tests in patients with STC provide evidence of a small fibre neuropathy. The high incidence of a positive family history, particularly a possible association with Hirschsprung's disease, suggests a genetic basis, which deserves further investigation. © 1999 British Journal of Surgery Society Ltd