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What is Fecal Incontinence? Diagnosis & Treatment

One of our main goals is to help end the shame so many women experience around pelvic floor disorders. And perhaps nowhere is this more needed than around fecal incontinence.

Fecal incontinence (also called bowel incontinence or anal incontinence) is the inability to control bowel movements. This can range from small, irregular feces leakage, to a complete and regular loss of bowel control. This condition mostly affects women and older adults, and there are many treatments available for it.

Far too many women suffer through fecal incontinence needlessly in silence and shame. So let’s take a little stigma out of the condition by exploring what it is and how to treat it.

Understanding Fecal Incontinence

Fecal incontinence will present itself differently, depending on the cause and severity. It can present as either urge incontinence, in which people have an urge to defecate that is too sudden and quick for them to be able to reach the bathroom in time. Or, people can experience passive incontinence, in which the person is not aware of the need to defecate. People can also experience fecal seepage.1

In either case, stool leaks out of the rectum uncontrollably. It may be accompanied by diarrhea, constipation or gas and bloating.

There are many causes of fecal incontinence, including muscle damage (which can occur during childbirth, among other causes), nerve damage (which can also occur during vaginal delivery, among other causes), chronic or frequent diarrhea or constipation, and other conditions such as hemorrhoids and inflammatory bowel disease. It is also often common in late-stage Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.2

It’s important to note, too,  that the bowels are supported and controlled by the pelvic floor. As such, just like pelvic floor disorders can lead to urinary incontinence, they can also lead to fecal incontinence. If your pelvic floor muscles are too week, or if your rectum prolapses into your anus or vagina, you may experience fecal incontinence.

Treating Fecal Incontinence

We know that women often suffer through pelvic floor dysfunction in shame and silence.  This may be especially true for fecal incontinence, since bowel control is so central to our sense of well being and self control. As one journal study asserts, “Continence care breaches social norms about privacy, nakedness and bodily functions … Patients can experience feelings of guilt and shame and a sense of ‘incompetence’, which can be connected to childhood experiences.”3

We also know that the prevalence of fecal incontinence is often underestimated because patients are reluctant to report symptoms or seek care. For example, one study found that only 10-30% of women report their symptoms to a doctor, which can lead to delayed diagnosis and treatment.  And since this condition can lead to “social isolation, embarrassment, loss of employment, as well as intimate relationships and self-esteem,” it’s critical they patients get help.4

Thankfully, there are currently many ways to treat and manage fecal incontinence. It can start with something as simple as diet changes and pelvic floor exercises. The condition can also be treated through medication, bowel training and/or biofeedback. There are also many surgical treatments available.

So there is absolutely no reason to suffer through fecal incontinence! Speak to your doctor, or seek out a pelvic floor specialist in your area (our Physician Finder can do just that). Either way, be sure to put your health and well being first.

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