Bowel incontinence, also known as fecal incontinence, describes the inability to control various bowel movements, including flatulence (gas) or stool. This condition can be a spectrum of diseases ranging from mild difficulties controlling gas to experiencing severe problems such as complete loss of control over liquid or formed stools. According to the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons, approximately 2% of American women are affected by this condition.
Although there are many causes of bowel incontinence, the most common cause is injury during childbirth. Anal operations or traumatic injuries may also cause bowel incontinence. Injuries or old age may cause the anal muscles to lose strength, which can inhibit adequate bowel control. A physical exam is recommended to diagnose and subsequently treat bowel incontinence.
Because bowel incontinence occurs most commonly in women who’ve given birth, risk factors for this condition generally include multiple pregnancies, large weight babies, and forceps deliveries. Episiotomies during childbirth may also lead to bowel incontinence.
Short-term bowel incontinence usually presents itself as occasional bouts of diarrhea. Chronic, recurring bowel incontinence, on the other hand, usually produces the following symptoms:
- Inability to control the passage of gas or stools
- Inability to make it to the bathroom in time to pass a bowel movement
- Occasional soiling of the underwear
- Frequent diarrhea
- Complete loss of bowel control
Treatment for bowel incontinence includes a combination of techniques including dietary changes, medications, biofeedback, surgical intervention, muscle strengthening exercises, or an artificial anal sphincter. A colon and rectal surgeon may also recommend a unique treatment called sacral nerve stimulation, which delivers electrical energy to nerves that control sphincter movements. Extreme cases of bowel incontinence may be mitigated through a colostomy.