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Fecal Incontinence—Adult

  • Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Publication Type:


Fecal Incontinence—Adult

Bowel Incontinence


Fecal incontinence is when a person is not able to control bowel movements.

Types of fecal incontinence are:

  • Urge incontinence—Being unable to stop having a bowel movement
  • Passive incontinence—Passing stool without feeling the need to get to a bathroom
  • Anal incontinence—Passing stool or gas due to problems with the muscles of the anus
  • Overflow incontinence—Leaking liquid stool when there is a large mass of stool blocking the rectum


The rectum is the last part of the large intestine. It holds onto stool until it is ready to pass through the anal canal. Nerves in the rectum send signals to the brain when it is full. This makes the urge to pass stool. Stool moves into the anal canal to the anal sphincter. The muscles of the sphincter control the passage of stool out of the body. Fecal incontinence happens when there is a problem with this process.

Causes may be:

  • Problems that disturb the gut and result in changes in stool, such as diarrhea or constipation
  • Pelvic floor problems that make it hard for the rectum to work as it should
  • Damage that causes weakness of the anal sphincter, such as from trauma or surgery
  • Intestinal diseases that cause swelling of the anus and rectum, such as inflammatory bowel disease
  • Problems with the nervous system that make it hard for the rectum to tell the brain when it is full

Risk Factors

This problem is more common in older adults. Fecal incontinence is also more common in women. Other things that may raise the risk are:

  • Problems that disturb the gut, especially diarrhea
  • Problems with the structure or function of the anus or rectum, such as inflammatory bowel disease and rectal prolapse
  • Spinal cord or nervous system issues or injuries, such as multiple sclerosis
  • Problems that affect stool traits, such as infection or a blockage of stool
  • Taking some medicines that:
    • Weaken the sphincter
    • Cause constipation or diarrhea
    • Reduce alertness

Rectal Prolapse—The rectum falls through the anal opening.

Rectal prolapsehttp://services.epnet.com/getimage.aspx?imageiid=77457745si55551290_105433_1.jpgsi55551290NULLjpgRectal prolapseNULL\\hgfiler01a\intellect\images\si55551290_105433_1.jpgNULL64NULL2008-12-162614007745_432306Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


The main symptom of fecal incontinence is not being able to control the passage of solid or liquid stool.


The doctor will ask about symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. This is often enough to make the diagnosis.

Images may be taken to look for an underlying cause. This can be done with:

Anorectal manometry may be done to check the pressure of the anal canal.


The goal of treatment is to manage symptoms. Underlying causes will be treated of fecal incontinence. More than one treatment may be needed. Choices are:

  • Dietary changes, such as avoiding foods and supplements that may trigger diarrhea
  • Lifestyle changes, such as working out and going to the bathroom on a regular schedule
  • Biofeedback to learn how to control the passage of stool
  • Medicines to treat:
    • Constipation
    • Diarrhea
    • Poor anal sphincter muscle tone


There are no known guidelines to prevent this health problem.

Procedures and Surgery

People who are not helped by other methods may need procedures or surgery. Choices are:

  • Injecting a bulking agent into the walls of the anus to narrow the opening
  • Repairing damage to the anal sphincter
  • Using radiofrequency energy to change the muscles of the anal canal
  • Putting a balloon in the vagina to raise pressure on the rectum
  • Having a man made bowel sphincter that a person can open and close as needed
  • Having a colostomy to disconnect the colon and bring the end through an opening in the belly called a stoma




  • Bharucha AE, Dunivan G, et al. Epidemiology, pathophysiology, and classification of fecal incontinence:state of the science summary for the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) Workshop. Am J Gastroenterol, 2015; 110 (1): 127-136.
  • Bowel control problems (fecal incontinence). National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/bowel-control-problems-fecal-incontinence.
  • Fecal incontinence in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/fecal-incontinence-in-adults.


  • James P. Cornell, MD
Last Updated:

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.