Bowel incontinence

Bowel incontinence is an inability to control bowel movements, resulting in the involuntary passage of stools.

It is also sometimes known as faecal incontinence.

The experience of bowel incontinence can vary from person to person. Some people feel a sudden, urgent need to go to the toilet, and incontinence occurs because they are unable to reach a toilet in time. This is known as urge bowel incontinence.

Other people may experience no sensation before passing a stool, known as passive incontinence or passive soiling, or they may pass a small piece of stool while passing wind.

Some people experience incontinence on a daily basis, whereas for others the problem only occurs from time to time.

Who is affected

Bowel incontinence is much more common than most people realise: it's thought 1 in 10 people will be affected by it at some point in their life.

It can affect people of any age, although the problem is more common in elderly people. It is more common in women than men.

Why bowel incontinence happens

Bowel incontinence is not a condition in itself. It is a symptom of an underlying problem or medical condition.

Many cases are caused by diarrhoea, constipation, or weakening of the ring of muscle that controls the opening of the anus.

Bowel incontinence can also be caused by long-term conditions such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis and dementia.

Read more about the causes of bowel incontinence.

Seeking advice and treatment

Bowel incontinence can be extremely upsetting and hard to cope with, but effective treatments are available and a cure is often possible, so make sure you see your GP.

It is important to remember that:

  • Bowel incontinence is not something to be ashamed of – it is simply a medical problem that is no different from diabetes or asthma.
  • It can be treated – there is a wide range of successful treatments.
  • Bowel incontinence is not a normal part of ageing.
  • It will usually not go away on its own – most people will need treatment for the condition.

If you don't want to see your GP, you can usually make an appointment at your local NHS continence service without a referral. These clinics are staffed by specialist nurses who can offer useful advice about incontinence.

Read more about diagnosing bowel incontinence.

How bowel incontinence is treated

In many cases, with the right treatment, a person can maintain normal bowel function throughout their life.

Treatment will often depend on the cause and severity of the condition, but possible options include:

  • lifestyle and dietary changes to relieve constipation or diarrhoea
  • exercise programmes to strengthen the muscles that control the passage of stools
  • medication to control symptoms of diarrhoea and constipation
  • surgery, of which there are a number of different options

Incontinence products, such as anal plugs and disposable pads, can be used until your symptoms are better controlled.

Even if a complete cure for bowel incontinence is not possible, most people's symptoms improve significantly and they achieve a better quality of life.

Read more about treating bowel incontinence.

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