Assessing Bowel Function

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  • 0:01 The Bowel of the GI Tract
  • 0:52 Patient History
  • 2:21 Observation & Charting
  • 3:26 Physical Assessment
  • 5:43 Fecal Examination
  • 6:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adrianne Baron

Adrianne has taught high school and college biology and has a master's degree in cancer biology.

This lesson explores the different techniques that nurses use to assess bowel function in patients. You'll also learn about a few factors that may alter bowel function.

The Bowel of the GI Tract

You may not have spent much time thinking about it before, but our bowels have a really important job in the body. We eat on a regular basis to get the nutrients and energy that we need in the body. The food and nutrients pass through our GI tract to be digested and extracted. We don't want to keep the digested food that is depleted of nutrients, now called feces, in the lower bowel forever. That would be very uncomfortable!

The release of feces to outside the body, known as bowel elimination, should take place at the appropriate time. Not being able to eliminate feces can wreak havoc in the body as well leading to different conditions and diseases. In this lesson, we'll take a look at the different ways to assess bowel function in patients so that you can easily recognize when things aren't running smoothly.

Patient History

One of the best starting points for assessing bowel function is to get information about a patient's current and past health, which is known as the patient history. This is key to understanding what may be going on with patients and impacting their bowels.

Eating habits should be questioned when recording patient history. There are times when patients come in complaining of not being able to excrete bowels, but then we find out that they haven't been eating anything either. If nothing goes in, then we don't expect anything to come out. What the patient eats is as important as how often they are eating. Drinking is important because we need to know the amount and types of liquids being consumed. People need a certain amount of water in order to be able to form and release feces.

The patient's daily life and activities are one of the last key things to be discussed and considered when looking at possible GI tract problems. An active patient should have regular bowel movements, whereas a sedentary person may have less. A patient that is under a lot of stress could experience changes in bowel habits as well. Stress may increase or decrease frequency of elimination and will almost certainly change the consistency of the feces being eliminated.

Recent surgeries and medications can also give clues to changes in bowel function. Some surgeries and medications alter the frequency of bowel elimination and consistency of feces being released.

Observation and Charting

It's time now to look at how we determine bowel function. Everyone has a normal amount and frequency for bowel elimination. The majority of people will have anywhere from 1-3 bowel movements a day for at least 3 -5 days out of the week. It is key to know the patient's norm for bowel elimination in order to determine changes in function.

Observation involves watching a patient's bowel habits. You are to observe almost everything about a patient's bowel movements. When, how much, how often, and type should be observed.

The second part of this assessment is charting, which is documenting the observations. This is important to better keep track of the observations. Most people cannot keep up with their own bathroom habits let alone the habits of someone else. As a nurse, you will be responsible for knowing the habits of many patients at the same time. Observation and charting will help you to stay on top of the bowel functions of all of your patients.

Physical Assessment

The first way that we can detect changes is by auscultation, which is simply listening to the bowel. It isn't going to talk to us per se, but it will make noises as it works. There are noises that are considered to be normal bowel sounds and ones that are considered to be not so normal.

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