It is estimated that 1 in every 12 adults experiences fecal incontinence, or bowel incontinence. Fecal incontinence is the inability to control bowel movements, causing stool to leak from the rectum.
Although fecal incontinence can affect both genders, women are more likely to develop the condition than men. May is Women’s Health Month, so let’s discuss some causes and treatments of fecal incontinence so you can feel confident when speaking to your doctor.
Fecal incontinence can be caused by digestive diseases and disorders, but it can also be a normal part of aging. Here are several reasons fecal incontinence may develop:
Women who have delivered large babies or who had a difficult childbirth may experience fecal incontinence after delivery. Prolonged and difficult labors can cause nerve damage and weaken pelvic muscles and the supporting structures of the uterus, bladder and rectum and can cause permanent nerve damage. This can lead to pelvic organ prolapse (in which organs such as the bladder, uterus, bowel or rectum drop or sag) and to fecal incontinence. About one in every three women experiences pelvic floor prolapse, whether due to childbirth or as a natural part of aging.
Make an appointment to see a gastroenterologist if you are passing stool when you cough or pass gas or before you can reach the toilet. The doctor will go over your symptoms and medical history during your exam. Tests that can help diagnose fecal incontinence include MRI (to analyze the structure of the anus and rectum), anal manometry (to evaluate the muscles and nerves around the anus and rectum), defecography (to determine how much stool the rectum can hold) and anal electromyography (to inspect for nerve damage in the pelvic floor and rectum) (UCLA Health).
When the strong tissue layers between the vagina and lower bowel weaken, the back wall of the vagina can prolapse and lead to fecal incontinence. A procedure called posterior vaginal repair reinforces the weakened layers between the rectum and vagina using absorbable stitches or reinforced mesh. Posterior vaginal repair has a success rate of 80-90 percent, but there is a chance that a prolapse could occur again or that a prolapse could occur in a different area (Bladder and Bowel).
Although prolapse often requires surgical repair, some women can see improvement in fecal incontinence through physical therapy to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles. The solution might be as easy as learning exercises that help restore muscle tone.
If fecal incontinence is preventing you from doing the activities you enjoy, it is time to see a doctor. Click here to get connected to one of our board-certified gastroenterologists. You can make an appointment at one of our convenient GI ambulatory surgery centers near your home.