OBJECTIVE: Sacral nerve modulation (SNM) for the treatment of faecal incontinence was originally performed in patients with an intact anal sphincter or after repair of a sphincter defect. There is evidence that SNM can be performed in patients with faecal incontinence and an anal sphincter defect. METHOD: Two groups of patients were analysed retrospectively to determine whether SNM is as effective in patients with faecal incontinence associated with an anal sphincter defect as in those with a morphologically intact anal sphincter following anal repair (AR). Patients in group A had had an AR resulting in an intact anal sphincter ring. Group B included patients with a sphincter defect which was not primarily repaired. Both groups underwent SNM. All patients had undergone a test stimulation percutaneous nerve evaluation (PNE) followed by a subchronic test over 3 weeks. If the PNE was successful, a permanent SNM electrode was implanted. Follow-up visits for the successfully permanent implanted patients were scheduled at 1, 3, 6 and 12 months and annually thereafter. RESULTS: Group A consisted of 20 (19 women) patients. Eighteen (90%) had a positive subchronic test stimulation. Twelve patients had a successful SNM implant during middle-term follow-up. Group B consisted of 20 women. The size of the defect in the anal sphincter varied between 17% and 33% of the anal circumference. Fourteen (70%) had a positive subchronic test stimulation. Twelve patients had a successful SNM implant during middle-term follow-up. In both groups, the mean number of incontinence episodes decreased significantly with SNM (test vs baseline: P = 0.0001, P = 0.0002). There was no significant difference in resting and squeeze pressures during SNM in group A, but in group B squeeze pressure had increased significantly at 24 months. Comparison of patient characteristics and outcome between groups A and B revealed no statistical differences. CONCLUSION: A morphologically intact anal sphincter is not a prerequisite for success in the treatment of faecal incontinence with SNM. An anal sphincter defect of <33% of the circumference can be effectively treated primarily with SNM without repair.