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Symptoms of bowel incontinence

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

How many people does bowel incontinence affect?

Bowel incontinence or fecal incontinence affects around 2% of the general population and may affect up to 25 to 50% of the institutionalized population of patients.

The general prevalence of 2 to 7% in the population is considered a gross underestimate since many patients do not come forth to the health care providers with their condition due to embarrassment.

How does bowel incontinence affect quality of life?

Bowel incontinence leads to a severe impact on the quality of life, emotional and physical wellbeing of the patient. The social, personal life as well as hygiene is severely affected. The symptoms are widely varied among individuals and no two persons have similar symptoms.

Bowel incontinence in women

Women are commonly affected with bowel incontinence especially after giving birth vaginally. Pregnancy and childbirth leads to stretching of the pelvic floor muscles and rectal sphincters raising the risk of bowel incontinence.

Menopause, removal of uterus surgeries as well as other gynecologic surgeries in women also raises the risk of bowel incontinence.

Among the elderly up to 20% of women and 10% of men live with bowel incontinence. In nursing homes, rates of bowel incontinence may be as high as 50%.

How often does bowel incontinence occur?

Bowel incontinence may be experienced daily, weekly or monthly and may be associated with certain stressful conditions or episodes of constipation or diarrhea alone with no symptoms in between episodes.

Bowel incontinence is usually a symptom of an underlying condition affecting the nerves and muscles of the rectum, anal canal and the pelvic floor rather than a disease in itself.

Symptoms of bowel incontinence include: 1-6

  • Mild incontinence like passage of small bits or amounts of stool while passing wind or straining (like lifting weights etc.). Some may pass a small piece of stool while passing wind and this may be liquid or solid stools.

  • Sudden urge to go to the toilet and mild incontinence because the patient is unable to reach a toilet in time. This is known as urge bowel incontinence. This is common among the elderly.

  • Passive soiling occurs in some patients when they have no sensation while their bowels are evacuated uncontrollably. This is called passive incontinence

  • There may be stool leakage in some individuals that is a continuous small amount of stool leaking out of the anus.

  • Urinary incontinence or inability to control the leakage or flow of urine is a commonly associated symptom with bowel incontinence.

  • There may be associated diarrhea or constipation.

  • There may be itchiness, soreness or pain around the anus and the skin around the anus.

  • Abdominal pain and cramps may be seen in some individuals.

  • There may be bloating of the abdomen and other symptoms of abdominal discomfort.

Reviewed by , BA Hons (Cantab)

Further Reading

Last Updated: Sep 10, 2012

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