Diagnosis

Your doctor will ask questions about your condition and perform a physical exam that usually includes a visual inspection of your anus. A probe may be used to examine this area for nerve damage. Normally, this touching causes your anal sphincter to contract and your anus to pucker.

Medical tests

A number of tests are available to help pinpoint the cause of fecal incontinence:

  • Digital rectal exam. Your doctor inserts a gloved and lubricated finger into your rectum to evaluate the strength of your sphincter muscles and to check for any abnormalities in the rectal area. During the exam your doctor may ask you to bear down, to check for rectal prolapse.
  • Balloon expulsion test. A small balloon is inserted into the rectum and filled with water. You'll then be asked to go to the toilet to expel the balloon. If it takes longer than one to three minutes to do so, you likely have a defecation disorder.
  • Anal manometry. A narrow, flexible tube is inserted into the anus and rectum. A small balloon at the tip of the tube may be expanded. This test helps measure the tightness of your anal sphincter and the sensitivity and functioning of your rectum.
  • Anorectal ultrasonography. A narrow, wand-like instrument is inserted into the anus and rectum. The instrument produces video images that allow your doctor to evaluate the structure of your sphincter.
  • Proctography. X-ray video images are made while you have a bowel movement on a specially designed toilet. The test measures how much stool your rectum can hold and evaluates how well your body expels stool.
  • Colonoscopy. A flexible tube is inserted into your rectum to inspect the entire colon.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI can provide clear pictures of the sphincter to determine if the muscles are intact and can also provide images during defecation (defecography).

Treatment

Medications

Depending on the cause of fecal incontinence, options include:

  • Anti-diarrheal drugs such as loperamide hydrochloride (Imodium A-D) and diphenoxylate and atropine sulfate (Lomotil)
  • Bulk laxatives such as methylcellulose (Citrucel) and psyllium (Metamucil), if chronic constipation is causing your incontinence

Exercise and other therapies

If muscle damage is causing fecal incontinence, your doctor may recommend a program of exercise and other therapies to restore muscle strength. These treatments can improve anal sphincter control and the awareness of the urge to defecate.

Options include:

  • Kegel exercises. Kegel exercises strengthen the pelvic floor muscles, which support the bladder and bowel and, in women, the uterus, and may help reduce incontinence. To perform Kegel exercises, contract the muscles that you would normally use to stop the flow of urine.

    Hold the contraction for three seconds, then relax for three seconds. Repeat this pattern 10 times. As your muscles strengthen, hold the contraction longer, gradually working your way up to three sets of 10 contractions every day.

  • Biofeedback. Specially trained physical therapists teach simple exercises that can increase anal muscle strength. People learn how to strengthen pelvic floor muscles, sense when stool is ready to be released and contract the muscles if having a bowel movement at a certain time is inconvenient. Sometimes the training is done with the help of anal manometry and a rectal balloon.
  • Bowel training. Your doctor may recommend making a conscious effort to have a bowel movement at a specific time of day: for example, after eating. Establishing when you need to use the toilet can help you gain greater control.
  • Bulking agents. Injections of nonabsorbable bulking agents can thicken the walls of your anus. This helps prevent leakage.
  • Sacral nerve stimulation (SNS). The sacral nerves run from your spinal cord to muscles in your pelvis, and regulate the sensation and strength of your rectal and anal sphincter muscles. Implanting a device that sends small electrical impulses continuously to the nerves can strengthen muscles in the bowel.
  • Posterior tibial nerve stimulation (PTNS/TENS). This minimally invasive treatment stimulates the posterior tibial nerve at the ankle. In a large study, however, this therapy didn't prove to be significantly better than a placebo.
  • Vaginal balloon (Eclipse System). This is a pump-type device inserted in the vagina. The inflated balloon results in pressure on the rectal area, leading to a decrease in the number of episodes of fecal incontinence.
  •  Radiofrequency therapy. Known as the Secca procedure, this involves delivering temperature-controlled radiofrequency energy to the wall of the anal canal to help improve muscle tone. Radiofrequency therapy is minimally invasive and is generally performed under local anesthesia and sedation. However, this procedure isn't always covered by insurance.

Surgery

Treating fecal incontinence may require surgery to correct an underlying problem, such as rectal prolapse or sphincter damage caused by childbirth. The options include:

  • Sphincteroplasty. This procedure repairs a damaged or weakened anal sphincter that occurred during childbirth. Doctors identify an injured area of muscle and free its edges from the surrounding tissue. They then bring the muscle edges back together and sew them in an overlapping fashion, strengthening the muscle and tightening the sphincter. Sphincteroplasty may be an option for patients trying to avoid colostomy.
  • Treating rectal prolapse, a rectocele or hemorrhoids. Surgical correction of these problems will likely reduce or eliminate fecal incontinence. Over time, the prolapse of the rectum through the rectal sphincter damages the nerves and muscles of the sphincter. The longer the prolapse goes untreated, the higher will be the risk of fecal incontinence not resolving after surgery.
  • Colostomy (bowel diversion). This surgery diverts stool through an opening in the abdomen. Doctors attach a special bag to this opening to collect the stool. Colostomy is generally considered only after other treatments haven't been successful.

Lifestyle and home remedies

Dietary changes

You may be able to gain better control of your bowel movements by:

  • Keeping track of what you eat. What you eat and drink affects the consistency of your stools. Make a list of what you eat for a few days. You may discover a connection between certain foods and your bouts of incontinence. Once you've identified problem foods, stop eating them and see if your incontinence improves.

    Foods that can cause diarrhea or gas and worsen fecal incontinence include spicy foods, fatty and greasy foods, and dairy products (if you're lactose intolerant). Caffeine-containing beverages and alcohol also can act as laxatives, as can products such as sugar-free gum and diet soda, which contain artificial sweeteners.

  • Getting adequate fiber. If constipation is causing fecal incontinence, your doctor may recommend eating fiber-rich foods. Fiber helps make stool soft and easier to control. If diarrhea is contributing to the problem, high-fiber foods can also add bulk to your stools and make them less watery.

    Fiber is predominately present in fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain breads and cereals. Aim for 25 grams of fiber a day or more, but don't add it to your diet all at once. Too much fiber suddenly can cause uncomfortable bloating and gas.

  • Drink more water. To keep stools soft and formed, drink at least eight glasses of liquid, preferably water, a day.

Skin care

You can help avoid further discomfort from fecal incontinence by keeping the skin around your anus as clean and dry as possible. To relieve anal discomfort and eliminate any possible odor associated with fecal incontinence:

  • Wash with water. Gently wash the area with water after each bowel movement. Showering or soaking in a bath also may help.

    Soap can dry and irritate the skin. So can rubbing with dry toilet paper. Premoistened, alcohol-free, perfume-free towelettes or wipes may be a good alternative for cleaning the area.

  • Dry thoroughly. Allow the area to air-dry, if possible. If you're short on time, you can gently pat the area dry with toilet paper or a clean washcloth.
  • Apply a cream or powder. Moisture-barrier creams help keep irritated skin from having direct contact with feces. Be sure the area is clean and dry before you apply any cream. Nonmedicated talcum powder or cornstarch also may help relieve anal discomfort.
  • Wear cotton underwear and loose clothing. Tight clothing can restrict airflow, making skin problems worse. Change soiled underwear quickly.

When medical treatments can't completely eliminate incontinence, products such as absorbent pads and disposable underwear can help you manage the problem. If you use pads or adult diapers, be sure they have an absorbent wicking layer on top, to help keep moisture away from your skin.

Coping and support

For some people, including children, fecal incontinence is a relatively minor problem, limited to occasional soiling of their underwear. For others, the condition can be devastating due to a complete lack of bowel control.

If you have fecal incontinence

You may feel reluctant to leave your house out of fear you might not make it to a toilet in time. To overcome that fear, try these practical tips:

  • Use the toilet right before you go out.
  • If you expect you'll be incontinent, wear a pad or a disposable undergarment.
  • Carry supplies for cleaning up and a change of clothing with you.
  • Know where toilets are located before you need them so that you can get to them quickly.
  • Use pills to reduce the smell of stool and gas (fecal deodorants) available over-the-counter.

Because fecal incontinence can be distressing, it's important to take steps to deal with it. Treatment can help improve your quality of life and raise your self-esteem.

Preparing for your appointment

You may start by seeing your primary care provider. Or, you may be referred immediately to a doctor who specializes in treating digestive conditions (gastroenterologist).

Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.

What you can do

When you make the appointment, ask if there's anything you need to do in advance, such as fasting before having a specific test. Make a list of:

  • Your symptoms, including any that seem unrelated to the reason for your appointment
  • Key personal information, including major stresses, recent life changes and family medical history
  • All medications, vitamins or other supplements you take, including the doses
  • Bring a family member or friend with you if possible, to help you remember the information you're given
  • Make a list of questions to ask your doctor

For fecal incontinence, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:

  • What's likely causing my symptoms?
  • Other than the most likely cause, what are other possible causes for my symptoms?
  • What tests do I need?
  • Is my condition likely temporary or chronic?
  • What's the best course of action?
  • What are the alternatives to the primary approach you're suggesting?
  • I have other health conditions. Will treatment for fecal incontinence complicate my care for these conditions?
  • Are there restrictions I need to follow?
  • Should I see a specialist?
  • Are there brochures or other printed material I can have? What websites do you recommend?

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask you several questions, such as:

  • When did your symptoms begin?
  • Have your symptoms been continuous or do they come and go?
  • How severe are your symptoms?
  • Does anything seem to improve your symptoms?
  • What, if anything, appears to worsen your symptoms?
  • Do you avoid any activities because of your symptoms?
  • Do you have other conditions such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis or chronic constipation?
  • Do you have diarrhea?
  • Have you ever been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease?
  • Have you ever had radiation therapy to your pelvic area?
  • Were forceps used or did you have an episiotomy during childbirth?
  • Do you also have urinary incontinence?

What you can do in the meantime

Avoid foods or activities that worsen your symptoms. This might include avoiding caffeine, fatty or greasy foods, dairy products, spicy foods, or anything that makes your incontinence worse.