Many people who have fecal incontinence, or the inability to control bowel movements, are reluctant to mention it to their physicians – but they shouldn’t be. Research has shown that it is a common problem, affecting about one in three people who see a primary care provider.
Fecal incontinence is also known as bowel incontinence and can range from an occasional leakage to a complete loss of bowel control. In some cases, it can be accompanied by constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating and cramping. Effective treatments are available, so talk to your doctor about what's right for you.
Fecal incontinence may be caused by several factors, including damage to the muscles or nerves that control bowel movements. This can happen to some women after childbirth, or may result from trauma or injury. Rectal prolapse may also be a factor if the rectum drops out of position.
Occasional fecal incontinence, such as that caused by a bout of diarrhea, generally does not require medical care. However, if fecal incontinence is a chronic or ongoing problem, a medical evaluation is the first step to identifying the cause and the appropriate treatment.
If fecal incontinence is a problem for you, your doctor may perform a physical examination and possibly a digital rectal exam to check for abnormalities in the rectum. Depending on the findings, your doctor may recommend X-rays, ultrasound, MRI or other tests to pinpoint the cause.
Bowel incontinence treatments range from dietary changes and over-the-counter medications to prescription drugs and biofeedback. Physical therapy may help strengthen weakened muscles so you can regain control. In some cases, such as with rectal prolapse, surgery may be recommended.
There’s no reason to put off getting help for fecal incontinence. Mercy physicians understand that this can be an embarrassing and isolating condition and have helped many people find the right treatment. The sooner you seek treatment, the closer you’ll be to living comfortably and confidently.