Fecal incontinence, also known as bowel incontinence, is a condition in which a person loses control of his or her bowel movements. Minor cases can cause accidental gas loss or liquid stool leakage, while major cases can result in the uncontrollable passing of solid stool. Fecal incontinence can occur in children or adults, but tends to be more common in women and the elderly.
The rectum is made of ring-shaped inner muscles referred to as sphincters. Sphincters are responsible for holding stool inside the rectum until a person decides to release it, but any damage can weaken the muscles. Conditions that affect the rectum may eventually lead to fecal incontinence.
One of the main causes of rectal damage is constipation. Constipation occurs when stools become hardened and stuck in the rectum. Straining to release the lodged stool can stretch rectal muscles and make them become too weak to hold future bowel movements.
Women who have given birth are more likely to suffer from fecal incontinence, especially if they have delivery complications. If a doctor cannot use his or her hands to deliver a baby, forceps may be used instead. Forceps are a clamp-like instrument used to grasp objects; however, they can also potentially cause tearing to the anus. Women who have an episiotomy, an operation where a small cut is made between the vagina and anus to aid in delivery, especially have an increased risk of fecal incontinence. Childbirth can also cause pelvic abnormalities that can cause incontinence.
If left untreated, fecal incontinence can result in skin irritation around the rectum and lead to depression and social isolation if a sufferer cannot go out in public; however, there are a number of treatments for the condition. For incontinence caused by constipation, doctors may prescribe dietary changes, such as increasing the amount of fiber in a person’s diet to make stool softer and easier to pass. Drinking during mealtimes can speed up the digestive process and lead to quicker excretion, so people with the condition may be advised to limit beverages to at least a half hour after eating to limit incontinence.
Bowel training can be used to strengthen damaged sphincters. The process consists of coaching the body to only release bowel movements at set times by attempting to use the restroom at the same times everyday. With repeated attempts, the body may become used to the schedule.
Kegel exercises are another way to improve weakened rectal muscles. The exercises are performed by contracting and releasing the pelvic muscles in order to increase strength to the rectum. In severe cases, surgery may have to be performed to repair rectal damage and permanently relieve fecal incontinence.