Incontinence

What is it

Bowel incontinence is the inability to control bowel movements. It’s a common problem, especially among older adults. Bowel incontinence is usually not a serious medical problem. But it can seriously interfere with daily life. People with bowel incontinence may avoid social activities for fear of embarrassment.

What Causes it

The most common cause of bowel incontinence is damage to the muscles around the anus (anal sphincters). Vaginal childbirth can damage the anal sphincters or their nerves. That’s why women are affected by bowel incontinence about twice as often as men. Anal surgery can also damage the anal sphincters or nerves, leading to bowel incontinence.

There are many other potential causes of bowel incontinence, including:

  • Diarrhea (often due to an infection or irritable bowel syndrome)
  • Impacted stool (due to severe constipation, often in older adults)
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis)
  • Nerve damage (due to diabetes, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, or other conditions)
  • Radiation damage to the rectum (such as after treatment for prostate cancer)
  • Cognitive (thinking) impairment (such as after a stroke or advanced Alzheimer’s disease)

More than one cause for bowel incontinence is frequently present. It’s also not unusual for bowel incontinence to occur without a clear cause.

Diagnosis of Bowel Incontinence

Discussing bowel incontinence may be embarrassing, but it can provide clues for a doctor to help make the diagnosis. During a physical examination, a doctor may check the strength of the anal sphincter muscle using a gloved finger inserted into the rectum.

Other tests may be helpful in identifying the cause of bowel incontinence, such as:

  • Stool testing. If diarrhea is present, stool testing may identify an infection or other cause.
  • Endoscopy. A tube with a camera on its tip is inserted into the anus. This identifies any potential problems in the anal canal or colon. A short, rigid tube (anoscopy) or a longer, flexible tube (sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy) may be used.

Visit Digestive CARE’s Center of Excellent CARE in Motility and Constipation for more information.

Contact Information

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