Fecal incontinence, also called bowel incontinence, is the impaired ability to control the passage of bowel movements. This common problem can cause issues ranging from an occasional leakage of stool or gas to a total loss of bowel control. While not life-threatening, fecal incontinence can be an embarrassing issue that, if left untreated, can result in social isolation and a negative impact on quality of life.
Causes of Fecal Incontinence
Common causes of fecal incontinence include muscle or nerve damage, which is often associated with aging or giving birth, but not always. Other causes of fecal incontinence include injury and disease:
- Muscle damage: Any damage or injury to the muscle rings at the end of the rectum can cause incontinence. Childbirth-related injury is the most common cause of fecal incontinence due to tears in the anal muscles during childbirth. Tears to the anal muscles may be noticeable right after childbirth but may also go unnoticed until problems arise later in life.
- Nerve damage: Injury to the nerves in the rectum that sense stool or the nerves that control the anal sphincter may be a cause of fecal incontinence. Nerve damage can be sustained during childbirth, excessive straining during bowel movements, spinal cord injury or stroke. Diseases such as diabetes and multiple sclerosis can also affect the nerves controlling proper bowel management and leading to fecal incontinence.
- Anal operations or traumatic injury to the tissues of or near the anal region can lessen bowel control.
- Chronic constipation may cause the muscles of the rectum to weaken and can cause nerve damage leading to fecal incontinence.
- Anal muscles can gradually weaken as we age such that a mild control problem can get increasingly worse later in life.
Common Risk Factors for Fecal Incontinence
Factors that may increase the risk of developing fecal incontinence include the following:
- Age: While fecal incontinence can occur at any age, it is more common in adults over 65.
- Gender: Fecal incontinence seems to occur more in women due to both complications of childbirth and recent research which concludes that women who use menopausal hormone replacement therapy are more likely to experience fecal incontinence.
- Nerve damage: Those individuals who have long-term diabetes or multiple sclerosis and have suffered nerve damage as a result may be at larger risk of fecal incontinence.
- Physical disability
It may be possible to reduce the risk of developing fecal incontinence or prevent it from happening altogether, depending on the cause. These actions may help:
- Reduce constipation: Eat foods with a higher fiber content, exercise often and drink plenty of water.
- Avoid straining: Straining during bowel movements can weaken anal sphincter muscles and damage nerves, both of which can lead to fecal incontinence.
- Dietary changes: Monitoring your diet to help avoid diarrhea or constipation by tracking what you eat with a food diary.
- Medicine: Some over-the-counter medicines may help with lessening diarrhea or easing constipation helping to alleviate fecal incontinence.
- Surgery: Minimally invasive techniques to restore normal anatomy and function to the rectal sphincter muscles.
How Advanced Gynecology Can Help: Treatment Options for Fecal Incontinence
If you are suffering from any amount of loss of fecal control, Advanced Gynecology is here for you.
Our board-certified team of women’s health experts are ready to help you with diagnostic care and a range of treatment options. We will counsel you about the best options for you and your health.
For more information, schedule an appointment today or call one of our patient coordinators to get started.