What is fecal incontinence?
Fecal incontinence means that you are not able to hold your feces, or stool, until you
get to a toilet. There are many reasons for this. It might be a case of diarrhea that
strikes suddenly or damaged muscles or nerves within your rectum. Your rectum is the
last section of your intestine. It controls bowel movements, and signals when you need
Experts believe that about 1 in 12 adults has fecal incontinence. It's not a normal
part of getting older, but you are more likely to have it as you age. Women are also
more at risk for this condition than men are.
What causes fecal incontinence?
Fecal incontinence can be caused by a chronic illness, injury, or surgery. Causes can
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Large hemorrhoids
- Injuries or diseases of the spinal cord
- Severe dementia
inflammation in the digestive tract
- Injuries during childbirth
- Operations that separate or widen the anal sphincters
What are the symptoms of fecal incontinence?
Symptoms of fecal incontinence include:
stool when you are not using the toilet. This might be when you cough or pass
- Passing stool before you can reach the toilet
How is fecal incontinence diagnosed?
diagnose your problem, your healthcare provider ask about your health history and will
do a physical exam. The provider will also ask about your symptoms.
you describe the symptoms, include:
- Any diet
or physical activity that seems to cause your problem
severe the leaking stool is
problems such as pain, constipation, or illness
the leaking occurs
may need imaging tests, such as:
manometry. Your healthcare provider uses a thin, flexible tube to check how
well the muscles and nerves around your anus and rectum are working.
- MRI. MRI imaging may help find problems with the structure of your anus and
ultrasound. Sound waves make images of the structures in your anus and
- Proctography. This is an X-ray that helps your healthcare provider find out
how much stool you can store in your rectum and how your body handles stool.
- Proctosigmoidoscopy. Your provider will use a flexible tube to look inside
your rectum and lower intestine. He or she will look for scars, inflammation, or
other conditions. In certain cases, you may need a colonoscopy. This test looks at
the entire colon.
electromyography. This test looks for signs of nerve damage in the pelvic
floor and rectum.
Your healthcare provider may also ask
about your emotional health and quality of life. This is done to find out how the
condition is affecting you. Fecal incontinence can threaten self-confidence. And you may
worry about everything from odors to your appearance.
How is fecal incontinence treated?
treatment recommended for your fecal incontinence will depend on its cause. You might
need to try more than one or a combination to manage fecal incontinence. Possible
- Medicine. You may be given medicines to help control diarrhea or other
illnesses or diseases that contribute to fecal incontinence. A high-fiber diet is
almost always advised.
- Muscle training. Your healthcare provider may recommend certain exercises that could help strengthen the muscles of your pelvic floor.
- Biofeedback. This is a method that helps you learn to control the muscles
that help you have a bowel movement.
stimulation. Your healthcare provider may implant small devices that cause
small electronic pulses. These are put near important nerves to help control bowel
plug. This removable device can make it easier for you to control when you go
to the toilet. It's helpful for people who don’t mind the slight discomfort.
- Surgery. In some cases, you may need surgery to improve your bowel function
or fix a structural problem.
methods. You may be given shots to bulk up the anal sphincter muscle. Or you
may get a magnetic bead implant to tighten the sphincter.
What are possible complications of
Complications are problems caused by your condition. With fecal incontinence, complications may include:
and social distress. Fecal incontinence is embarrassing. You may start to
skip work and social situations. Some people become depressed because of this
Frequent exposure to feces and wiping can irritate the skin around your anus.
nutrition. Over time, severe fecal incontinence may mean that your body isn’t
getting enough nutrition from your food. Your healthcare provider may advise
How can I help prevent fecal
causes of fecal incontinence can’t be prevented. But as you go through the process of
diagnosis to find its cause, you might learn ways to prevent episodes of incontinence.
For example, if your diet is to blame, not having certain foods or beverages such as
alcohol or caffeine may help. So might a high-fiber diet with plenty of fluids. Bowel
training may help you develop a schedule for going to the bathroom throughout the day.
This can help prevent accidents.
Living with fecal incontinence
may need to take certain steps so that you can keep enjoying your life. These steps
- Work with
your healthcare provider. Some treatment approaches may take time to work.
Follow instructions for any medicines your healthcare provider gives you. Ask your
healthcare team if you don’t understand how to use supplies. Contact your healthcare
provider if you don’t see any improvement.
therapy. If fecal incontinence is damaging your relationships, work life, or
your overall quality of life, talking with a psychologist or therapist may help.
- Keep a food
diary. Keep track of the foods you eat and the days or times when fecal
incontinence strikes. This could help show a pattern in your diet that contributes to
- Train your bowels. One way to reduce your risk of fecal incontinence is to use the toilet regularly and try to have a bowel movement.
- Pack a change of clothing. Always be prepared. Carry fresh clothes and shoes, cleansing cloths, and a spare bag to store any dirty items.
absorbent pads. While you’re learning to manage fecal incontinence, buy some
incontinence products. These might be pads that absorb leaks and odors.
- Take “fecal
deodorant” medicine. Talk with your healthcare provider about medicine that
can reduce odors linked to fecal incontinence.
- Learn to
care for delicate skin. Use cleansing and barrier products to prevent skin
irritation and pain from fecal incontinence. Zinc oxide paste is one example of a
When should I call my healthcare
your healthcare provider to schedule an appointment to talk about fecal incontinence
that is affecting your quality of life. Call your provider right away if your fecal
incontinence is from frequent, ongoing diarrhea and you have signs of dehydration. If
you have rectal bleeding, or black, tarry stool, discuss this with your provider or go
to the nearest emergency room.
Key points about fecal
- Fecal incontinence means that you are not able to hold your feces, or stool, until you get to a toilet.
- Fecal incontinence can be caused by diarrhea, damaged muscles or nerves within your rectum, large hemorrhoids, constipation, or chronic illnesses.
treatment recommended for your fecal incontinence will depend on its cause. But it
may include lifestyle changes, medicine, or surgery.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
- Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
- Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
- Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your healthcare provider tells you.
- At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your healthcare provider gives you.
- Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
- Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
- Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
- Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
- If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
- Know how you can contact your healthcare provider if you have questions.
Online Medical Reviewer:
Jen Lehrer MD
Online Medical Reviewer:
John Hanrahan MD
Online Medical Reviewer:
L Renee Watson MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed:
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