fecal incontinence

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Related to fecal incontinence: diarrhea, urinary incontinence, Bowel incontinence

Fecal Incontinence



Fecal incontinence is the inability to control the passage of gas or stools (feces) through the anus. For some people fecal incontinence is a relatively minor problem, as when it is limited to a slight occasional soiling of underwear, but for other people it involves a considerable loss of bowel control and has a devastating effect on quality of life and psychological well-being. Fortunately, professional medical treatment is usually able to restore bowel control or at least substantially reduce the severity of the condition.


Fecal incontinence, also called bowel incontinence, can occur at any age, but is most common among people over the age of 65, who sometimes have to cope with urinary incontinence as well. It was reported in 1998 that about 2% of adults experience fecal incontinence at least once a week whereas for healthy independent adults over the age of 65 the figure is about 7%. An extensive American survey, published in 1993, found fecal soiling in 7.1% of the surveyed population, with gross incontinence in 0.7%. For men and women the incidence of soiling was the same, but women were almost twice as likely to suffer from gross incontinence.
The wider public health impact of fecal incontinence is considerable. In the United States, more than $400 million is spent each year on disposable underwear and other incontinence aids. Fecal incontinence is the second most common reason for seeking a nursing home placement. One-third of the institutionalized elderly suffer from this condition. Incontinence sufferers, however, often hesitate to ask their doctors for help because they are embarrassed or ashamed. The 1993 American survey discovered that only one-sixth of those experiencing soiling had sought medical advice, and only one-half of those afflicted with gross incontinence.

Causes and symptoms

Fecal incontinence can result from a wide variety of medical conditions, including childbirth-related anal injuries, other causes of damage to the anus or rectum, and nervous system problems.
Vaginal-delivery childbirth is a major cause of fecal incontinence. In many cases, childbirth results in damage to the anal sphincter, which is the ring of muscle that closes the anus and keeps stools within the rectum until a person can find an appropriate opportunity to defecate. Nerve injuries during childbirth may also be a factor in some cases. An ultrasound study of first-time mothers found sphincter injuries in 35%. About one-third of the injured women developed fecal incontinence or an uncontrollable and powerful urge to defecate (urgency) within six weeks of giving birth. Childbirth-related incontinence is usually restricted to gas, but for some women involves the passing of liquid or solid stools.
The removal of hemorrhoids by surgery or other techniques (hemorrhoidectomies) can also cause anal damage and fecal incontinence, as can more complex operations affecting the anus and surrounding areas. Anal and rectal infections as well as Crohn's disease can lead to incontinence by damaging the muscles that control defecation. For some people, incontinence becomes a problem when the anal muscles begin to weaken in midlife or old age.
Dementia, mental retardation, strokes, brain tumors, multiple sclerosis, and other conditions that affect the nervous system can cause fecal incontinence by interfering with muscle function or the normal rectal sensations that trigger sphincter contraction and are necessary for bowel control. One study of multiple sclerosis patients discovered that about half were incontinent. Nerve damage caused by long-lasting diabetes mellitus (diabetic neuropathy) is another condition that can give rise to incontinence.


Medical assessments in cases of fecal incontinence typically involve three steps: asking questions about the patient's past and current health (the medical history); a physical examination of the anal region; and testing for objective information regarding anal and rectal function.

Patient history

The medical history relies on questions that allow the doctor to evaluate the nature and severity of the problem and its effect on the patient's life. The doctor asks, for instance, how long the patient has been suffering from incontinence; how often and under what circumstances incontinence occurs; whether the patient has any control over defecation; and whether the patient has obstacles to defecation in his or her everyday surroundings, such as a toilet that can be reached only by climbing a long flight of stairs. For women who have given birth, a detailed obstetric history is also necessary.

Physical examination

The physical examination begins with a visual inspection of the anus and the area lying between the anus and the genitals (the perineum) for hemorrhoids, infections, and other conditions that might explain the patient's difficulties. During this phase of the examination the doctor asks the patient to bear down. Bearing down enables the doctor to check whether rectal prolapse or certain other problems exist. Rectal prolapse means that the patient's rectum has been weakened and drops down through the anus. Next, the doctor uses a pin or probe to stroke the perianal skin. Normally this touching causes the anal sphincter to contract and the anus to pucker; if it does not, nerve damage may be present. The final phase of the examination requires the doctor to examine internal structures by carefully inserting a gloved and lubricated finger into the anal canal. This allows the doctor to judge the strength of the anal sphincter and a key muscle (the puborectalis muscle) in maintaining continence; to look for abnormalities such as scars and rectal masses; and to learn many other things about the patient's medical situation. At this point the doctor performs the anal wink test again and asks the patient to squeeze and bear down.

Laboratory tests

Information from the medical history and physical examination usually needs to be supplemented by tests that provide objective measurements of anal and rectal function. Anorectal manometry, a common procedure, involves inserting a small tube (catheter) or balloon device into the anal canal or rectum. Manometry measures, among other things, pressure levels in the anal canal, rectal sensation, and anal and rectal reflexes. Tests are also available for assessing nerve damage. An anal ultrasound probe can supply accurate images of the anal sphincter and reveal whether injury has occurred. Magnetic resonance imaging, which requires the insertion of a coil into the anal canal, is useful at times.


Fecal incontinence arising from an underlying condition such as diabetic neuropathy can sometimes be helped by treating the underlying condition. When that does not work, or no underlying condition can be discovered, one approach is to have the patient use a suppository or enema to stimulate defecation at the same time every day or every other day. The goal is to restore regular bowel habits and keep the bowels free of stools. Medications such as loperamide (Imodium) and codeine phosphate are often effective in halting incontinence, but only in less severe cases involving liquid stools or urgency. Dietary changes and exercises done at home to strengthen the anal muscles may also help.
Good results have been reported for biofeedback training, although the subject has not been properly researched. In successful cases, patients regain complete control over defecation, or at least improve their control, by learning to contract the external part of the anal sphincter whenever stools enter the rectum. All healthy people have this ability. Biofeedback training begins with the insertion into the rectum of a balloon manometry device hooked up to a pressure monitor. The presence of stools in the rectum is simulated by inflating the balloon, which causes pressure changes that are recorded on the monitor. The monitor also records sphincter contraction. By watching the monitor and following instructions from the equipment operator, the patient gradually learns to contract the sphincter automatically in response to fullness in the rectum. Sometimes one training session is enough, but often several are needed. Biofeedback is not an appropriate treatment in all cases, however. It is used only with patients who are highly motivated; who are able, to some extent, to sense the presence of stools in the rectum; and who have not lost all ability to contract the external anal sphincter. One specialist suggests that possibly two-thirds of incontinence sufferers are candidates for biofeedback.
Some people may require surgery. Sphincter damage caused by childbirth is often effectively treated with surgery, however, as are certain other kinds of incontinence-related sphincter injuries. Sometimes surgical treatment requires building an artificial sphincter using a thigh muscle (the gracilis muscle). At one time a colostomy was necessary for severe cases of incontinence, but is now rarely performed.


Fecal incontinence is a problem that usually responds well to professional medical treatment, even among elderly and institutionalized patients. If complete bowel control cannot be restored, the impact of incontinence on everyday life can still be lessened considerably in most cases. When incontinence remains a problem despite medical treatment, disposable underwear and other commercial incontinence products are available to make life easier. Doctors and nurses can offer advice on coping with incontinence, and people should never be embarrassed about seeking their assistance. Counseling and information are also available from support groups.



International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. PO Box 17864, Milwaukee, WI 53217. (888) 964-2001. http://www.iffgd.org.
National Association for Continence. PO Box 8310, Spartanburg, SC 29305-8310. (800) 252-3337. http://www.nafc.org.
National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. 2 Information Way, Bethesda, MD 20892-3570. (800) 891-5389. http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health/digest/nddic.htm.

Key terms

Anus — The opening at the lower end of the rectum.
Colostomy — A surgical procedure in which an opening is made in the wall of the abdomen to allow a part of the large intestine (the colon) to empty outside the body.
Crohn's disease — A disease marked by inflammation of the intestines.
Defecation — Passage of stools through the anus.
Hemorrhoids — Enlarged veins in the anus or rectum. They are sometimes associated with fecal incontinence.
Rectum — The lower section of the large intestine that holds stools before defecation.
Sphincter — A circular band of muscle that surrounds and encloses an opening to the body or to one of its hollow organs. Damage to the sphincter surrounding the anus can cause fecal incontinence.
Stools — Undigested food and other waste that is eliminated through the anus.
Suppository — A solid medication that slowly dissolves after being inserted into the rectum or other body cavity.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. inability to control excretory functions.
2. immoderation or excess. adj., adj incon´tinent.
bowel incontinence
2. a nursing diagnosis accepted by the North American Nursing Diagnosis Association, defined as a state in which an individual has a change in normal bowel habits, with involuntary bowel movements.
continuous incontinence continuous urinary leakage from a source other than the urethra, such as a fistula.
fecal incontinence (incontinence of the feces) inability to control defecation; both physiologic and psychological conditions can be contributing factors. Called also encopresis and bowel incontinence. See also bowel elimination, altered. Physiologic causes include neurologic sensory and motor defects such as those occurring in stroke and spinal cord injury; pathologic conditions that impair the integrity of the sphincters, such as tumors, lacerations, fistulas, and loss of sensory innervation; altered levels of consciousness; and severe diarrhea. Psychological factors include anxiety, confusion, disorientation, depression, and despair.

There is potential for physical and psychological stress when a person is unable to control his or her bowel movements. Damage to the integrity of the skin and its breakdown into pressure ulcers is always a possibility no matter how hard caregivers might try to keep the patient clean and dry. Psychologically the person is likely to suffer from loss of self-esteem and is certain to experience some alteration in self-image. From the time of toilet training a person is expected to be able to handle the tasks of bowel elimination. An adult who for some reason is no longer able to do this is often embarrassed by and ashamed of the inability to perform this most basic of self-care activities.
Patient Care. Assessment of the problem of fecal incontinence should be extensive and thorough so that a realistic and effective plan of care can be implemented. Sometimes all that is needed is a regularly scheduled time to offer the patient a bedpan or help using a bedside commode or going to the bathroom. If diarrhea is a problem it may be that dietary intake needs changing or tube feedings are not being administered correctly. Dietary changes may also help the patient who has a stoma leading from the intestine. In cases of neurologic or neuromuscular deficit, retraining for bowel elimination is a major part of rehabilitation of the patient. Frequently, it is possible to help a patient achieve control by means of a well-planned and executed bowel training program.

Biofeedback techniques can be helpful in many cases. The person learns to maintain higher tone in the anal sphincter through use of a balloon device that provides feedback information about pressures in the rectum. With practice the person can learn better control and develop a more acute awareness of the need to defecate.
functional incontinence incontinence due to impairment of physical or cognitive functioning.
functional urinary incontinence a nursing diagnosis accepted by the North American Nursing Diagnosis Association, defined as an inability of a usually continent person to reach the toilet in time to avoid the unintentional loss of urine. See also urinary incontinence.
overflow incontinence (paradoxical incontinence) urinary incontinence due to pressure of retained urine in the bladder after the bladder has contracted to its limits; there may be a variety of presentations, including frequent or constant dribbling or symptoms similar to those of stress or urge incontinence.
reflex incontinence the urinary incontinence that accompanies detrusor hyperreflexia.
reflex urinary incontinence a nursing diagnosis accepted by the North American Nursing Diagnosis Association, defined as an involuntary loss of urine at somewhat predictable intervals, whenever a specific bladder volume is reached. See also reflex incontinence.
risk for urge urinary incontinence a nursing diagnosis accepted by the North American Nursing Diagnosis Association, defined as the state of being at risk for involuntary loss of urine associated with a sudden strong sensation of urinary urgency. See also urge urinary incontinence.
severe stress urinary incontinence severe stress incontinence as a result of incompetence of the sphincter mechanism.
stress incontinence urinary incontinence due to strain on the orifice of the bladder, as in coughing or sneezing.
stress urinary incontinence a nursing diagnosis accepted by the North American Nursing Diagnosis Association, defined as loss of urine of less than 50 ml when there is increased abdominal pressure. See also stress incontinence.
total urinary incontinence a nursing diagnosis accepted by the Seventh National Conference on the Classification of Nursing Diagnoses, defined as a state in which an individual has continuous and unpredictable loss of urine; see also urinary incontinence.
urge incontinence (urgency incontinence) urinary or fecal incontinence preceded by a sudden, uncontrollable impulse to evacuate (see also urgency). Urge incontinence of urine is a major complaint of patients with urinary tract infections and is also present in some women two or three days before onset of the menstrual period.
urge urinary incontinence a nursing diagnosis accepted by the North American Nursing Diagnosis Association, defined as the involuntary passage of urine soon after feeling a strong sense of urgency to urinate; see also urge incontinence.
urinary incontinence (incontinence of urine) loss of control of the passage of urine from the bladder; see also enuresis. It can be caused by pathologic, anatomic, or physiologic factors affecting the urinary tract, as well as by factors entirely outside it. See also urinary elimination, altered.
Patient Care. The Agency for Health Care Policy and Research (AHCPR) convened an interdisciplinary, non-Federal panel of physicians, nurses, allied health care professionals, and health care consumers that has identified and published Clinical Practice Guidelines for Urinary Incontinence in Adults. Identification and documentation of urinary incontinence can be improved with more thorough medical history taking, physical examination, and record keeping. Routine tests of lower urinary tract function should be performed for initial identification of incontinence. There are also situations that require further evaluation by qualified specialists.

The guidelines provide an informed framework for selecting appropriate behavioral, pharmacologic, and surgical treatment and supportive services that can be used to treat urinary incontinence. The panel concluded that behavioral techniques such as bladder training and pelvic muscle exercises are effective, low cost interventions that can reduce incontinence significantly in varied populations. Surgery, except in very specific cases, should be considered only after behavioral and pharmacologic interventions have been tried. The panel found evidence in the literature that treatment can improve or cure urinary incontinence in most patients. The address of the AHCPR is Agency for Health Care Policy and Research, P.O. Box 8547, Silver Spring, MD 20907. They can also be called toll free at (800) 358-9295.
Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. © 2003 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.

in·con·ti·nence of fe·ces

the involuntary voiding of feces into clothing or bedclothes, usually due to pathology affecting sphincter control or loss of cognitive functions.
Synonym(s): fecal incontinence
Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary © Farlex 2012
References in periodicals archive ?
Newly available: A vaginal insert for fecal incontinence
RDD-0315 for fecal incontinence, an indication for which there is no approved Rx product, has completed a Phase 2a study in Europe.
There was no statistically significant difference between age groups in terms of the prevalence of flatal incontinence, fecal incontinence and constipation (p=0.81, p=0.88 and p=0.24, respectively).
Specific to management of fecal incontinence in critical care settings, investigators examined three interventions and found that care consisting of barrier protectants and/or an external fecal incontinence collector statistically improved scores of IAD better than internal fecal containment devices (Pittman, Beeson, Terry, Kessler, & Kirk, 2012).
A divot in her anal canal causes fecal incontinence.
Objective: Pelvic floor disorders are common and include a wide spectrum of conditions such as pelvic organ prolapse, urinary incontinence, fecal incontinence, voiding and/or defecation dysfunction, sexual dysfunction, and several chronic pain syndromes.
Fecal incontinence is not uncommon in acutely ill hospitalized patients, occurring in up to 33% of critically ill patients often in association with diarrhea [1].
Fecal incontinence is physically uncomfortable and emotionally devastating, and has profound effects on quality of life (Brown, Wexner, Segall, Brezoczky, & Lukacz, 2012).