Fecal incontinence is the inability to control your bowel movements, causing stool (feces) to leak unexpectedly from your rectum. Also called bowel incontinence, fecal incontinence ranges from an occasional leakage of stool while passing gas to a complete loss of bowel control in someone who is older than 4 years old.
Common causes of fecal incontinence include constipation, diarrhea, and muscle or nerve damage. Fecal incontinence may be due to a weakened anal sphincter associated with aging or to damage to the nerves and muscles of the rectum and anus from giving birth.
Generally, adults don’t experience fecal incontinence except perhaps during an occasional short-lived bout of diarrhea. But that’s not the case for people with recurring, or chronic, fecal incontinence. If you have fecal incontinence, you:
- Can’t control the passage of gas or stools, which may be liquid or solid, from your bowels
- May not be able to make it to the toilet in time.
For some people, including children, fecal incontinence is a relatively minor problem, limited to occasional soiling of their underwear. For others, the condition can be devastating due to a complete lack of bowel control.
Fecal incontinence may be accompanied by other bowel problems, such as:
- Gas and bloating
What are the treatment options?
The type of treatment depends on the cause and the severity of fecal incontinence. Treatments may include dietary changes, medications, special exercises or surgery.
- Dietary changes: Your doctor may recommend changes to your diet to help improve your bowel movements. Foods that cause diarrhea and gas and worsen fecal incontinence include spicy, fatty and greasy foods, cured or smoked meat, carbonated beverages or dairy products (if you are lactose intolerant). Caffeine, sugar-free gum and diet soda can also act as a laxative. Keep a list of foods that seem to cause you problems and try to cut back on them to see if your incontinence improves.
- Bowel Training: Bowel training (biofeedback) helps people relearn how to control their bowel movements and may involve strengthening muscles or training the bowels to empty at a specific time of day. This is training is done at the Pelvic Floor Center.
- Medications: Depending on the cause of your fecal incontinence, your doctor may prescribe anti-diarrheals, stool softeners or bulk laxatives (Metamucil®, Citrucel®).
- Surgery: Surgery to repair the anal sphincter may be an option for people who have not responded to medications, dietary changes or bowel training. Artificial sphincter devices may also be recommended.
- Self Care: You can help avoid further discomfort by keeping the skin around your anus as clean and dry as possible. Gently wash the area with water after each bowel movement and dry thoroughly. Apply a moisture barrier cream to help keep your skin from having direct contact with stool (ask your doctor for recommendations). Wear cotton underwear and loose fitting clothing.
When to Seek Medical Advice:
You should see your doctor if you develop fecal incontinence. A number of tests are available to help diagnose the cause of the problem and determine the right treatment.