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Fecal Incontinence

Definition, Description, Causes and symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prognosis

Fecal incontinence is the inability to control the passage of gas or stools (feces) through the anus. For some people fecal incontinence is a relatively minor problem, as when it is limited to a slight occasional soiling of underwear, but for other people it involves a considerable loss of bowel control and has a devastating effect on quality of life and psychological well-being. Fortunately, professional medical treatment is usually able to restore bowel control or at least substantially reduce the severity of the condition.


Fecal incontinence, also called bowel incontinence, can occur at any age, but is most common among people over the age of 65, who sometimes have to cope with urinary incontinence as well. It was reported in 1998 that about 2% of adults experience fecal incontinence at least once a week whereas for healthy independent adults over the age of 65 the figure is about 7%. An extensive American survey, published in 1993, found fecal soiling in 7.1% of the surveyed population, with gross incontinence in 0.7%. For men and women the incidence of soiling was the same, but women were almost twice as likely to suffer from gross incontinence.

The wider public health impact of fecal incontinence is considerable. In the United States, more than $400 million is spent each year on disposable underwear and other incontinence aids. Fecal incontinence is the second most common reason for seeking a nursing home placement. One-third of the institutionalized elderly suffer from this condition. Incontinence sufferers, however, often hesitate to ask their doctors for help because they are embarrassed or ashamed. The 1993 American survey discovered that only one-sixth of those experiencing soiling had sought medical advice, and only one-half of those afflicted with gross incontinence.

Causes and symptoms

Fecal incontinence can result from a wide variety of medical conditions, including childbirth-related anal injuries, other causes of damage to the anus or rectum, and nervous system problems.

Vaginal-delivery childbirth is a major cause of fecal incontinence. In many cases, childbirth results in damage to the anal sphincter, which is the ring of muscle that closes the anus and keeps stools within the rectum until a person can find an appropriate opportunity to defecate. Nerve injuries during childbirth may also be a factor in some cases. An ultrasound study of first-time mothers found sphincter injuries in 35%. About one-third of the injured women developed fecal incontinence or an uncontrollable and powerful urge to defecate (urgency) within six weeks of giving birth. Childbirth-related incontinence is usually restricted to gas, but for some women involves the passing of liquid or solid stools.

The removal of hemorrhoids by surgery or other techniques (hemorrhoidectomies) can also cause anal damage and fecal incontinence, as can more complex operations affecting the anus and surrounding areas. Anal and rectal infections as well as Crohn's disease can lead to incontinence by damaging the muscles that control defecation. For some people, incontinence becomes a problem when the anal muscles begin to weaken in midlife or old age.

Dementia, mental retardation, strokes, brain tumors, multiple sclerosis, and other conditions that affect the nervous system can cause fecal incontinence by interfering with muscle function or the normal rectal sensations that trigger sphincter contraction and are necessary for bowel control. One study of multiple sclerosis patients discovered that about half were incontinent. Nerve damage caused by long-lasting diabetes mellitus (diabetic neuropathy) is another condition that can give rise to incontinence.


Medical assessments in cases of fecal incontinence typically involve three steps: asking questions about the patient's past and current health (the medical history); a physical examination of the anal region; and testing for objective information regarding anal and rectal function.

Patient history

The medical history relies on questions that allow the doctor to evaluate the nature and severity of the problem and its effect on the patient's life. The doctor asks, for instance, how long the patient has been suffering from incontinence; how often and under what circumstances incontinence occurs; whether the patient has any control over defecation; and whether the patient has obstacles to defecation in his or her everyday surroundings, such as a toilet that can be reached only by climbing a long flight of stairs. For women who have given birth, a detailed obstetric history is also necessary.

Physical examination

The physical examination begins with a visual inspection of the anus and the area lying between the anus and the genitals (the perineum) for hemorrhoids, infections, and other conditions that might explain the patient's difficulties. During this phase of the examination the doctor asks the patient to bear down. Bearing down enables the doctor to check whether rectal prolapse or certain other problems exist. Rectal prolapse means that the patient's rectum has been weakened and drops down through the anus. Next, the doctor uses a pin or probe to stroke the perianal skin. Normally this touching causes the anal sphincter to contract and the anus to pucker; if it does not, nerve damage may be present. The final phase of the examination requires the doctor to examine internal structures by carefully inserting a gloved and lubricated finger into the anal canal. This allows the doctor to judge the strength of the anal sphincter and a key muscle (the puborectalis muscle) in maintaining continence; to look for abnormalities such as scars and rectal masses; and to learn many other things about the patient's medical situation. At this point the doctor performs the anal wink test again and asks the patient to squeeze and bear down.

Laboratory tests

Information from the medical history and physical examination usually needs to be supplemented by tests that provide objective measurements of anal and rectal function. Anorectal manometry, a common procedure, involves inserting a small tube (catheter) or balloon device into the anal canal or rectum. Manometry measures, among other things, pressure levels in the anal canal, rectal sensation, and anal and rectal reflexes. Tests are also available for assessing nerve damage. An anal ultrasound probe can supply accurate images of the anal sphincter and reveal whether injury has occurred. Magnetic resonance imaging, which requires the insertion of a coil into the anal canal, is useful at times.


Fecal incontinence arising from an underlying condition such as diabetic neuropathy can sometimes be helped by treating the underlying condition. When that does not work, or no underlying condition can be discovered, one approach is to have the patient use a suppository or enema to stimulate defecation at the same time every day or every other day. The goal is to restore regular bowel habits and keep the bowels free of stools. Medications such as loperamide (Imodium) and codeine phosphate are often effective in halting incontinence, but only in less severe cases involving liquid stools or urgency. Dietary changes and exercises done at home to strengthen the anal muscles may also help.

Good results have been reported for biofeedback training, although the subject has not been properly researched. In successful cases, patients regain complete control over defecation, or at least improve their control, by learning to contract the external part of the anal sphincter whenever stools enter the rectum. All healthy people have this ability. Biofeedback training begins with the insertion into the rectum of a balloon manometry device hooked up to a pressure monitor. The presence of stools in the rectum is simulated by inflating the balloon, which causes pressure changes that are recorded on the monitor. The monitor also records sphincter contraction. By watching the monitor and following instructions from the equipment operator, the patient gradually learns to contract the sphincter automatically in response to fullness in the rectum. Sometimes one training session is enough, but often several are needed. Biofeedback is not an appropriate treatment in all cases, however. It is used only with patients who are highly motivated; who are able, to some extent, to sense the presence of stools in the rectum; and who have not lost all ability to contract the external anal sphincter. One specialist suggests that possibly two-thirds of incontinence sufferers are candidates for biofeedback.

Some people may require surgery. Sphincter damage caused by childbirth is often effectively treated with surgery, however, as are certain other kinds of incontinence-related sphincter injuries. Sometimes surgical treatment requires building an artificial sphincter using a thigh muscle (the gracilis muscle). At one time a colostomy was necessary for severe cases of incontinence, but is now rarely performed.


Fecal incontinence is a problem that usually responds well to professional medical treatment, even among elderly and institutionalized patients. If complete bowel control cannot be restored, the impact of incontinence on everyday life can still be lessened considerably in most cases. When incontinence remains a problem despite medical treatment, disposable underwear and other commercial incontinence products are available to make life easier. Doctors and nurses can offer advice on coping with incontinence, and people should never be embarrassed about seeking their assistance. Counseling and information are also available from support groups.



Schiller, Lawrence R. "Fecal Incontinence." In Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease, ed. Mark Feldman, et al. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Co., 1997.


Hirsh, Tina, and Tony Lembo. "Diagnosis and Management of Fecal Incontinence in Elderly Patients." American Family Physician (Oct. 1996): 1559+.

Kamm, Michael A. "Faecal Incontinence." British Medical Journal 316 (1998): 528+.


International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. PO Box 17864, Milwaukee, WI 53217. (888) 964-2001. <http://www.iffgd.org>.

National Association for Continence. PO Box 8310, Spartanburg, SC 29305-8310. (800) 252-3337. <http://www.nafc.org>.

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. 2 Information Way, Bethesda, MD 20892-3570. (800) 891-5389. <http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health/digest/nddic.htm>.

Howard Baker


Anus—The opening at the lower end of the rectum.

Colostomy—A surgical procedure in which an opening is made in the wall of the abdomen to allow a part of the large intestine (the colon) to empty outside the body.

Crohn's disease—A disease marked by inflammation of the intestines.

Defecation—Passage of stools through the anus.

Hemorrhoids—Enlarged veins in the anus or rectum. They are sometimes associated with fecal incontinence.

Rectum—The lower section of the large intestine that holds stools before defecation.

Sphincter—A circular band of muscle that surrounds and encloses an opening to the body or to one of its hollow organs. Damage to the sphincter surrounding the anus can cause fecal incontinence.

Stools—Undigested food and other waste that is eliminated through the anus.

Suppository—A solid medication that slowly dissolves after being inserted into the rectum or other body cavity.

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