Fecal Incontinence

Fecal incontinence refers to an inability to control bowel movements—learn about this condition and why it happens.  

Fecal (bowel) incontinence involves the inability to control the passing of solid or liquid stool. These bowel control problems can range from an occasional accident while passing gas to a complete loss of control. While some level of fecal incontinence is fairly normal during occasional bouts of diarrhea, this uncomfortable condition is a chronic problem for millions of adults in the United States.

Fecal Incontinence Causes

Fecal incontinence can result from multiple factors, including the following:

  • Injury to the anal sphincter muscles, which can sometimes occur during childbirth
  • Neurological diseases such as stroke and spina bifida, or spinal cord injuries
  • Chronic constipation or diarrhea that causes the anal sphincter muscles to stretch and weaken
  • Anal or rectal surgery that results in muscle or nerve damage
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease
  • Hemorrhoids that prevent the anal sphincter muscles from closing completely
  • The natural weakening of anal and rectal muscles that occurs with age

Fecal incontinence can occur in anyone, although it’s more likely to affect women and older adults.

Fecal Incontinence Symptoms

There are two main types of fecal incontinence: urge incontinence and passive incontinence. The symptoms of fecal incontinence can vary by its type—people with urge incontinence are unable to resist the sudden urge to defecate, while those with passive incontinence can involuntarily discharge stool or gas without being aware.

Fecal Incontinence Diagnosis

Fecal incontinence is usually diagnosed through a physical examination by a physician, who may also perform one or more of the following tests to confirm the diagnosis or identify its cause:

  • Anal manometry
  • Colonoscopy
  • Anorectal ultrasound
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy
  • Proctography

Fecal Incontinence Treatments

The treatment options for fecal incontinence vary considerably, ranging from dietary changes to ensure adequate fiber intake to surgery that repairs anal sphincter muscle injuries.

Other treatment options include:

  • Medications to help control diarrhea
  • Bowel training that helps the body acclimate to a regular bowel movement pattern
  • Nerve stimulation to improve the strength of the anal sphincter muscles

The physicians at Tampa General Hospital’s Gastroenterology Institute can diagnose and treat a full range of complex anal and rectal conditions, including fecal incontinence.