Bowel incontinence is the loss of bowel control, causing you to pass stool unexpectedly. This can range from sometimes leaking a small amount of stool and passing gas, to not being able to control bowel movements.

In adults age 65 and older, women tend to have problems with bowel control more often than men.

The rectum, anus, pelvic muscles, and nervous system must work together to control bowel movements. If there is a problem with any of these, it can cause incontinence. You must also be able to recognize and respond to the urge to have a bowel movement.

Many people feel embarrassed about bowel incontinence and may not tell their health care provider. But incontinence can be treated. So you should tell your provider if you are having problems. Proper treatment can help most people gain control of their bowels. Exercises to make the anal and pelvic muscles stronger can help the bowels work properly.

What Causes Bowel Incontinence?

Reasons people have bowel incontinence include:

  • Ongoing (chronic) constipation. This causes the anus muscles and intestines to stretch and weaken, leading to diarrhea and stool leakage.
  • Fecal impaction. It is most often caused by chronic constipation. This leads to a lump of stool that partly blocks the large intestine.
  • Long-term laxative use.
  • Colectomy or bowel surgery.
  • Not sensing that it's time to have a bowel movement.
  • Emotional problems.
  • Gynecological, prostate, or rectal surgery.
  • Injury to the anal muscles due to childbirth (in women).
  • Nerve or muscle damage (from injury, tumor, or radiation).
  • Severe diarrhea that causes leakage.
  • Severe hemorrhoids or rectal prolapse.
  • Stress of being in an unfamiliar environment.

Bowel Incontinence Treatment

Often, simple changes may help reduce bowel incontinence. Your provider may suggest one or more of these treatments.

Diet: Track the foods you eat to see if any types of foods cause problems. Foods that may lead to incontinence in some people include:

  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Dairy products (in people who are unable to digest lactose, a sugar found in most dairy products)
  • Fatty, fried, or greasy foods
  • Spicy foods
  • Cured or smoked meats
  • Sweeteners such as fructose, mannitol, sorbitol, and xylitol

Fiber: Adding bulk to your diet may thicken loose stool. To increase fiber:

  • Eat more whole grains. Aim for 30 grams of fiber a day. Read food labels to see how much fiber is in breads, cereals, and other foods.
  • Use products such as Metamucil that have a type of fiber called psyllium, which adds bulk to stools.

Bowel retraining and pelvic floor exercises: These methods can help you control your anal sphincter muscle when you have a bowel movement. Your provider can show you exercises to strengthen the pelvic floor and anal muscles. Bowel retraining involves trying to have a bowel movement at certain times of the day.

Some people can't tell when it's time to have a bowel movement. Or they can't move well enough to safely get to the bathroom on their own. These people need special care. They may become used to not getting to the toilet when it's time to have a bowel movement. To prevent this problem, help them get to the toilet after meals and when they feel the urge. Also, make sure the bathroom is safe and comfortable.

Surgery: If treatment does not work, surgery may help correct the problem. There are several types of procedures. The choice of surgery is based on the cause of the incontinence and the person's general health.

Treatment Option for Women

Wake Forest Baptist is proud is be among the first in the nation to offer a new, non-surgical option for women with bowel incontinence. The Eclipse System™ is designed to offer immediate effectiveness without the need for surgery, drugs or hormones.