Fecal incontinence is the inability to control one's bowels. When one feels the urge to have a bowel movement, they may not be able to hold it until they can get to a toilet, or stool may leak from the rectum unexpectedly.
People who have fecal incontinence may feel ashamed, embarrassed, or humiliated. Some do not want to leave the house out of fear they might have an accident in public. Most try to hide the problem as long as possible, so they withdraw from friends and family. The social isolation may be reduced because treatment can improve bowel control and make incontinence easier to manage.
It affects people of all ages--children as well as adults. Fecal incontinence is more common in women than in men and more common in older adults than in younger ones. It is not, however, a normal part of aging.
It is often thought of as being far more common in homosexual men than heterosexuals or homosexual women, with a 1993 British study often being cited in statistics. However, many people do not consider the results of this study valid in this case, as the thesis of the study was the effects of anal sex on fecal incontinence, not whether male homosexuals were any more or less likely to suffer from it. The exact extent of the issue remains somewhat controversial amongst medical professionals, though it is generally agreed that the incidence of incontinence in male homosexuals is not as high as is widely perceived.
Fecal incontinence can have several causes:
- pelvic floor dysfunction
- an extended period without defecation
- severe muscular strain in the abdominal area, particularly when giving birth
- damage to the anal sphincter muscles
- damage to the nerves of the anal sphincter muscles or the rectum
- loss of storage capacity in the rectum, e.g. due to surgery
The doctor will ask health-related questions and do a physical exam and possibly other medical tests.
- Anal manometry checks the tightness of the anal sphincter and its ability to respond to signals, as well as the sensitivity and function of the rectum.
- Anorectal ultrasonography evaluates the structure of the anal sphincters.
- Proctography, also known as defecography, shows how much stool the rectum can hold, how well the rectum holds it, and how well the rectum can evacuate the stool.
- Proctosigmoidoscopy allows doctors to look inside the rectum for signs of disease or other problems that could cause fecal incontinence, such as inflammation, tumors, or scar tissue.
- Anal electromyography tests for nerve damage, which is often associated with obstetric injury.
Treatment depends on the cause and severity of fecal incontinence; it may include dietary changes, medication, bowel training, or surgery. More than one treatment may be necessary for successful control since continence is a complicated chain of events.
Food affects the consistency of stool and how quickly it passes through the digestive system. One way to help control fecal incontinence in some persons is to eat foods that add bulk to stool, making it less watery and easier to control. Also, avoid foods that contribute to the problem. They include foods and drinks containing caffeine, like coffee, tea, and chocolate, which relax the internal anal sphincter muscle. Another approach is to eat foods low in fiber to decrease the work of the anal sphincters. Fruit can act as a natural laxative and should be eaten sparingly.
If diarrhea is causing the incontinence, medication may help. Sometimes doctors recommend using bulk laxatives to help people develop a more regular bowel pattern. Or the doctor may prescribe antidiarrheal medicines such as loperamide or diphenoxylate to slow down the bowel and help control the problem.
Bowel training helps some people relearn how to control their bowels. In some cases, it involves strengthening muscles; in others, it means training the bowels to empty at a specific time of day.
- Use biofeedback. Biofeedback is a way to strengthen and coordinate the muscles and has helped some people. Special computer equipment measures muscle contractions as you do exercises--called Kegel exercises--to strengthen the rectum. These exercises work muscles in the pelvic floor, including those involved in controlling stool. Computer feedback about how the muscles are working shows whether you're doing the exercises correctly and whether the muscles are getting stronger. Whether biofeedback will work for you depends on the cause of your fecal incontinence, how severe the muscle damage is, and your ability to do the exercises.
- Develop a regular pattern of bowel movements. Some people--particularly those whose fecal incontinence is caused by constipation--achieve bowel control by training themselves to have bowel movements at specific times during the day, such as after every meal. The key to this approach is persistence--it may take a while to develop a regular pattern. Try not to get frustrated or give up if it does not work right away.
Surgery may be an option for people whose fecal incontinence is caused by injury to the pelvic floor, anal canal, or anal sphincter. Various procedures can be done, from simple ones like repairing damaged areas, to complex ones like attaching an artificial anal sphincter or replacing anal muscle with muscle from the leg or forearm. People who have severe fecal incontinence that does not respond to other treatments may decide to have a colostomy, which involves removing a portion of the bowel. The remaining part is then either attached to the anus if it still works properly, or to a hole in the abdomen called a stoma, through which stool leaves the body and is collected in a pouch.
Because fecal incontinence can cause distress in the form of embarrassment, fear, and loneliness, taking steps to deal with it is important. Treatment can help improve the patient's life and emotional state. Seeking medical advice is strictly necessary for sufferers of this disorder. The organizations listed at the end of this article also provide information, opportunities for support and referrals to doctors who specialize in treating fecal incontinence.
Evreryday practical tips
- Take a backpack or tote bag containing cleanup supplies and a change of clothing with you everywhere.
- Locate public restrooms before you need them so you know where to go.
- Use the toilet before heading out.
- If you think an episode is likely, wear disposable undergarments or sanitary pads.
- If episodes are frequent, use oral fecal deodorants to add to your comfort level.
Fecal incontinence in children
If one's child has fecal incontinence, one needs to see a doctor to determine the cause and treatment. Fecal incontinence can occur in children because of a birth defect or disease, but in most cases it's because of chronic constipation.
Potty-trained children often get constipated simply because they refuse to go to the bathroom. The problem might stem from embarrassment over using a public toilet or unwillingness to stop playing and go to the bathroom. But if the child continues to hold in stool, the feces will accumulate and harden in the rectum. The child might have a stomachache and not eat much, despite being hungry. And when he or she eventually does pass the stool, it can be painful, which can lead to fear of having a bowel movement.
A child who is constipated may soil his or her underpants. Soiling happens when liquid stool from farther up in the bowel seeps past the hard stool in the rectum and leaks out. Soiling is a sign of fecal incontinence. Try to remember that your child did not do this on purpose. He or she cannot control the liquid stool and may not even know it has passed.
The first step in treating the problem is passing the built-up stool. The doctor may prescribe one or more enemas or a drink that helps clean out the bowel, like magnesium citrate, mineral oil, or polyethylene glycol.
The next step is preventing future constipation. One will play a big role in this part of his or her child's treatment. He or she may need to teach your child bowel habits, which means training your child to have regular bowel movements. Experts recommend that parents of children with poor bowel habits encourage their child to sit on the toilet four times each day (after meals and at bedtime) for 5 minutes. One can give rewards for bowel movements and remember that it is important not to punish his or her child for incontinent episodes.
Some changes in eating habits may be necessary too. One's child should eat more high-fiber foods to soften stool, avoid dairy products if they cause constipation, and drink plenty of fluids every day, including water and juices like prune, grape, or apricot, which help prevent constipation. If necessary, the doctor may prescribe laxatives.
It may take several months to break the pattern of withholding stool and constipation, and episodes of fecal incontinence may reoccur occasionally. The key is to pay close attention to your child's bowel habits. Some warning signs to watch for include
- pain with bowel movements
- hard stool
- refusal to go to the bathroom
- soiled underpants
- signs of holding back a bowel movement, like squatting, crossing the legs, or rocking back and forth
Why children get constipated
- They were potty-trained too early.
- They refuse to have a bowel movement (because of painful ones in the past, embarrassment, stubbornness, or even a dislike of public bathrooms).
- They are in an unfamiliar place.
- They are reacting to family stress like a new sibling or their parents' divorce.
- They cannot get to a bathroom when they need to go so they hold it. As the rectum fills with stool, the child may lose the urge to go and become constipated as the stool dries and hardens.
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