Bowel (or fecal) incontinence is the loss of control of bowel movements. This condition can be partial (when a person loses only a small amount of liquid waste) or complete (when the bowel movement cannot be controlled).
More than 5.5 million Americans have this problem. It is more common in women because anal muscles or nerves may be injured during childbirth. The problem becomes more common as people get older and the muscles that control bowel movements (anal sphincter muscles) get weaker.
Incontinence is common and treatable. Often, people are too embarrassed to seek treatment for incontinence. They prefer not to see a doctor because they do not know that their problem can be effectively treated and cured in most cases.
Normal control of bowel movements depends on proper functioning of the colon and rectum, the muscles surrounding the anus (anal sphincter muscles), the brain and the body's nerves (the nervous system), plus the amount and consistency of waste products produced. The causes of incontinence include:
- Damage or injury to the anal sphincter muscles or the nerves surrounding these muscles
- Radiation treatment to the lower pelvic region
- Spinal cord damage
- Systemic (whole-body) diseases such as diabetes or scleroderma
See your doctor if you have bowel incontinence. Tests to determine the cause for incontinence can be completed during an outpatient appointment. The tests are not painful. Once these tests have confirmed the cause of your incontinence, your doctor can make specific recommendations for treatment, many of which do not require surgery.