standard-title Fecal Incontinence or Bowel Incontinence Disorders

Fecal Incontinence or Bowel Incontinence Disorders

Fecal Incontinence or Bowel Incontinence Disorders

About the Condition

Fecal Incontinence/Bowel Incontinence

Fecal incontinence is the inability to control bowel movements, causing stool (feces) to leak unexpectedly from the rectum. Also called bowel incontinence, fecal incontinence ranges from an occasional leakage of stool while passing gas to a complete loss of bowel control.

Common causes of fecal incontinence include diarrhea, constipation, and muscle or nerve damage. The muscle or nerve damage may be associated with aging or with giving birth.

Whatever the cause, fecal incontinence can be embarrassing. But don’t shy away from talking to your doctor. Treatments are available that can improve fecal incontinence and your quality of life.

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Signs and Symptoms

Most adults experience fecal incontinence only during an occasional bout of diarrhea. But some people have recurring or chronic fecal incontinence. They:

  • Can’t control the passage of gas or stools, which may be liquid or solid, from their 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:

  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Gas and bloating

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Risk Factors

A number of factors may increase your risk of developing fecal incontinence, including:

  • Age. Although fecal incontinence can occur at any age, it’s more common in middle-aged and older adults. Approximately 1 in 10 women older than age 40 has fecal incontinence.
  • Being female. Fecal incontinence is slightly more common in women than in men. One reason may be that fecal incontinence can be a complication of childbirth. But most women with fecal incontinence develop it after age 40, so other factors may be involved.
  • Nerve damage. People who have long-standing diabetes or multiple sclerosis — conditions that can damage nerves that help control defecation — may be at risk of fecal incontinence.
  • Dementia. Fecal incontinence is often present in late-stage Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
  • Physical disability. Being physically disabled may make it difficult to reach a toilet in time. An injury that caused a physical disability also may cause rectal nerve damage leading to fecal incontinence.

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Diagnostic Process

Your doctor will ask questions about your condition and perform a physical exam that usually includes a visual inspection of your anus. A pin or probe may be used to examine this area for nerve damage. Normally, this touching causes your anal sphincter to contract and your anus to pucker.

Medical tests

A number of tests are available to help pinpoint the cause of fecal incontinence:

  • Digital rectal exam. Your doctor inserts a gloved and lubricated finger into your rectum to evaluate the strength of your sphincter muscles and to check for any abnormalities in the rectal area. During the exam your doctor may ask you to bear down, to check for rectal prolapse.
  • Balloon expulsion test. A small balloon is inserted into the rectum and filled with water. You are then asked to go to the toilet and expel the balloon. The length of time it takes to expel the balloon is recorded. A time of one minute or longer is usually considered a sign of a defecation disorder.
  • Anal manometry. A narrow, flexible tube is inserted into the anus and rectum. A small balloon at the tip of the tube may be expanded. This test helps measure the tightness of your anal sphincter and the sensitivity and functioning of your rectum.
  • Anorectal ultrasonography. A narrow, wand-like instrument is inserted into the anus and rectum. The instrument produces video images that allow your doctor to evaluate the structure of your sphincter.
  • Proctography. X-ray video images are made while you have a bowel movement (defecate) on a specially designed toilet. The test measures how much stool your rectum can hold and evaluates how well your body expels stool.
  • Proctosigmoidoscopy. A flexible tube is inserted into your rectum to inspect the last two feet of the colon (sigmoid) for signs of inflammation, tumors or scar tissue that may cause fecal incontinence.
  • Endorectal ultrasound. A special endoscope is inserted to look at the lower colon and to use sound waves to provide images of the anal sphincters.
  • Colonoscopy. A flexible tube is inserted into your rectum to inspect the entire colon.
  • Anal electromyography. Tiny electrodes inserted into muscles around the anus can reveal signs of nerve damage.
  • MRI. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can provide clear pictures of the sphincter to determine if the muscles are intact and can also provide images during defecation.

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Treatment Options

Treating fecal incontinence may require surgery to correct an underlying problem, such as rectal prolapse or sphincter damage caused by childbirth. The options include:

  • Sphincteroplasty. This procedure repairs a damaged or weakened anal sphincter. An injured area of muscle is identified, and its edges are freed from the surrounding tissue. The muscle edges are then brought back and sewn together in an overlapping fashion, strengthening the muscle and tightening the sphincter.
  • Treating rectal prolapse, a rectocele or hemorrhoids.Surgical correction of these problems will likely reduce or eliminate fecal incontinence.
  • Sphincter replacement. A damaged anal sphincter can be replaced with an artificial anal sphincter. The device is essentially an inflatable cuff, which is implanted around your anal canal. When inflated, the device keeps your anal sphincter shut tight until you’re ready to defecate. To go to the toilet, you use a small external pump to deflate the device and allow stool to be released. The device then reinflates itself.
  • Sphincter repair. In this surgery a muscle is taken from the inner thigh and wrapped around the sphincter, restoring muscle tone to the sphincter.
  • Colostomy. This surgery diverts stool through an opening in the abdomen. A special bag is attached to this opening to collect the stool. Colostomy is generally considered only after other treatments have been tried.

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