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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.
Fecal incontinence may occur temporarily during an occasional bout of diarrhea. But for some people, fecal incontinence is chronic or recurring. People with this condition may be unable to stop the urge to defecate, which comes on so suddenly that they don't make it to the toilet in time. This is called urge incontinence.
Another type of fecal incontinence occurs in people who are not aware of the need to pass stool. This is called passive incontinence.
Fecal incontinence may be accompanied by other bowel problems, such as:
- Gas and bloating
For many people, there is more than one cause of fecal incontinence. Causes can include:
Chronic constipation may cause a dry, hard mass of stool (impacted stool) to form in the rectum and become too large to pass. The muscles of the rectum and intestines stretch and eventually weaken, allowing watery stool from farther up the digestive tract to move around the impacted stool and leak out. Chronic constipation may also cause nerve damage that leads to fecal incontinence.
Solid stool is easier to retain in the rectum than is loose stool, so the loose stools of diarrhea can cause or worsen fecal incontinence.
When the veins in your rectum swell, causing hemorrhoids, this keeps your anus from closing completely, which can allow stool to leak out.
- Loss of storage capacity in the rectum
Normally, the rectum stretches to accommodate stool. If your rectum is scarred or stiff due to surgery, radiation treatment or inflammatory bowel disease, the rectum can't stretch as much as it needs to, and excess stool can leak out.
- Muscle damage
Injury to the rings of muscle at the end of the rectum (anal sphincter) may make it difficult to hold stool back properly. This kind of damage can occur during childbirth, especially if you have an episiotomy or forceps are used during delivery.
- Nerve damage
Injury to the nerves that sense stool in the rectum or those that control the anal sphincter can lead to fecal incontinence. The nerve damage can be caused by childbirth, constant straining during bowel movements, spinal cord injury or a stroke. Some diseases, such as diabetes and multiple sclerosis, also can affect these nerves and cause damage that leads to fecal incontinence.
- Rectal prolapse
Fecal incontinence can be a result of this condition, in which the rectum drops down into the anus. The stretching of the rectal sphincter by prolapse damages the nerves that control the rectal sphincter. The longer this persists, the less likely the nerves and muscles will recover.
In women, fecal incontinence can occur if the rectum protrudes through the vagina.
Surgery to treat enlarged veins in the rectum or anus (hemorrhoids), as well as more-complex operations involving the rectum and anus, can cause muscle and nerve damage that leads to fecal incontinence.
A number of factors may increase your risk of developing fecal incontinence, including:
Although fecal incontinence can occur at any age, it's more common in adults over 65.
- Being female
Fecal incontinence can be a complication of childbirth. Recent research has also found that women who take menopausal hormone replacement therapy have a modest increased risk of fecal incontinence.
Fecal incontinence is often present in late-stage Alzheimer's disease and dementia.
- Nerve damage
People who have long-standing diabetes, multiple sclerosis, or back trauma from injury or surgery may be at risk of fecal incontinence, as these conditions can damage nerves that help control defecation.
Depending on the cause of fecal incontinence, treatment options can include, medications, exercises, or surgery.
If muscle damage is causing fecal incontinence, your doctor may recommend a program of exercise and other therapies to restore muscle strength. These treatments can improve anal sphincter control and the awareness of the urge to defecate.
Treating fecal incontinence may require surgery to correct an underlying problem, such as rectal prolapse or sphincter damage caused by childbirth.
The options include:
This procedure repairs a damaged or weakened anal sphincter that occurred during childbirth. Doctors identify an injured area of muscle and free its edges from the surrounding tissue. They then bring the muscle edges back together and sew them in an overlapping fashion, strengthening the muscle and tightening the sphincter. Sphincteroplasty may be an option for patients trying to avoid colostomy.
- Treating rectal prolapse, a rectocele or hemorrhoids
Surgical correction of these problems will likely reduce or eliminate fecal incontinence. Over time, the prolapse of the rectum through the rectal sphincter damages the nerves and muscles of the sphincter. The longer the prolapse goes untreated, the higher will be the risk of fecal incontinence not resolving after surgery.
- Colostomy (bowel diversion)
This surgery diverts stool through an opening in the abdomen. Doctors attach a special bag to this opening to collect the stool. Colostomy is generally considered only after other treatments haven't been successful.