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 - Northwestern Memorial Hospital - Chicago

Fecal Incontinence

Fecal incontinence is an uncontrolled leakage of stool from the anus. It can happen at any time and without warning, which can cause embarrassment and fear of public and social situations. Fecal or bowel incontinence may be caused by:

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Muscle or nerve damage
  • Weakened anal sphincter (due to aging or nerve and muscle damage to the rectum and anus associated with giving birth)

Surprisingly, constipation is a common cause of fecal incontinence. Impacted stool can cause the mass to be too large to pass, which can adversely impact the rectum and intestines, stretching and weakening them. It also may cause the nerves of the anus to be less responsive to stool in the rectum.
Muscle and nerve damage can also cause fecal incontinence. Damage to the rings of muscle at the end of the rectum (known as the anal sphincter) can impair the body’s ability to hold back stool. These muscles can be damaged during childbirth, particularly if one has undergone an episiotomy or a forceps delivery.

Damage to nerves in the rectum or those that control the anal sphincter can be caused by childbirth, constant straining with bowel movements, stroke or spinal injury, diabetes or multiple sclerosis.

Who is at Risk?

Fecal incontinence may occur at any age. It is more common in older adults, although it is not a normal part of the aging process. Women are afflicted with it more often than men, likely because of this condition being a complication of childbirth. Individuals who have suffered nerve damage from diabetes or multiple sclerosis may be at increased risk. Those suffering from dementia or late-stage Alzheimer’s are also at risk.

Individuals who suffer from this condition may feel embarrassment, isolation, limitations in work and social life and emotional complications in the form of depression, anger and frustration.

Treatment plans vary depending on the cause of the problem, but may include:

  • Dietary changes
  • Medication
  • Pelvic floor muscle rehabilitation
  • Surgery
Last UpdateDecember 6, 2011