A Cross-Sectional Review of Reporting Variation in Postoperative Bowel Dysfunction After Rectal Cancer Surgery

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Postoperative bowel dysfunction affects quality of life after sphincter-preserving rectal cancer surgery, but the extent of the problem is not clearly defined because of inconsistent outcome measures used to characterize the condition.


The purpose of this study was to assess variation in the reporting of postoperative bowel dysfunction and to make recommendations for standardization in future studies. If possible, a quantitative synthesis of bowel dysfunction symptoms was planned.


MEDLINE and EMBASE databases, as well as the Cochrane Library, were queried systematically between 2004 and 2015.


The studies selected reported at least 1 component of bowel dysfunction after resection of rectal cancer.


The main outcome measures were reporting, measurement, and definition of postoperative bowel dysfunction.


Of 5428 studies identified, 234 met inclusion criteria. Widely reported components of bowel dysfunction were incontinence to stool (227/234 (97.0%)), frequency (168/234 (71.8%)), and incontinence to flatus (158/234 (67.5%)). Urgency and stool clustering were reported less commonly, with rates of 106 (45.3%) of 234 and 61 (26.1%) of 234. Bowel dysfunction measured as a primary outcome was associated with better reporting (OR = 3.49 (95% CI, 1.99–6.23); p < 0.001). Less than half of the outcomes were assessed using a dedicated research tool (337/720 (46.8%)), and the remaining descriptive measures were infrequently defined (56/383 (14.6%)).


Heterogeneity in the reporting, measurement, and definition of postoperative bowel dysfunction precluded pooling of results and limited interpretation.


Considerable variation exists in the reporting, measurement, and definition of postoperative bowel dysfunction. These inconsistencies preclude reliable estimates of incidence and meta-analysis. A broadly accepted outcome measure may address this deficit in future studies.

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