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.
Whatever the cause, fecal incontinence can be embarrassing. But don't shy away from talking to your doctor. Treatments are available that can improve, if not correct, fecal incontinence.
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:
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:
When to see a doctor
A broad range of conditions and disorders can cause fecal incontinence, including:
Your digestive tract contains a complex system of organs that converts the food you eat into energy and removes the waste that your body can't digest. Sphincter muscles, external and internal, in ...
A number of factors may increase your risk of developing fecal incontinence, including:
Complications of fecal incontinence may include:
Preparing for your appointment
If you have fecal incontinence, you're likely to start by seeing your family doctor. However, in some cases, you may be referred immediately to a gastroenterologist.
Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be well prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready, and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Your time with your doctor may be limited, so preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time together. For fecal incontinence, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment at any time that you don't understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
What you can do in the meantime
Tests and diagnosis
Treatments and drugs
A variety of treatments are available for fecal incontinence, depending on the severity of your symptoms. Treatment may include dietary changes, medications, special exercises that help you better control your bowels, or surgery.
Lifestyle and home remedies
When medical treatments can't completely eliminate incontinence, products such as absorbent pads and disposable underwear can help you better manage the problem. You can purchase incontinence products at drugstores, supermarkets and medical supply stores. If you use pads or adult diapers, be sure they have an absorbent wicking layer on top. Products with this layer wick moisture away from your skin.
Coping and support
If you have fecal incontinence
Because fecal incontinence can be distressing, it's important to take steps to deal with it. Treatment can help improve your quality of life and raise your self-esteem. If you haven't been to a doctor yet, make an appointment.
If you're caring for someone who has fecal incontinence
It may be possible to prevent fecal incontinence, depending on the cause. These actions may help:
Last Updated: 2010-08-14
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