What is Fecal Incontinence? Signs, Symptoms, & Treatment

Fecal incontinence is the inability to control your bowel movements. Also known as "accidental bowel leakage" or "bowel incontinence", fecal incontinence is much more common than people think. It typically affects 1 in 3 people who regularly see a primary health care provider. Adults over 65 are more likely to suffer from fecal incontinence. It's also more common in females to suffer from fecal incontinence due to complications during childbirth. According to The Canadian Continence Foundation, 1 in 10 women older than 40, has fecal incontinence. Some menopausal hormone replacement therapy has been linked to incontinence. Although most common in older adults, fecal incontinence can still be a problem for younger adults and children.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Sudden urges to void your bowels
  • Voiding your bowels and soiling yourself before realizing that you had to go
  • Recurring leakage while passing gas

Although it can be extremely uncomfortable and embarrassing, don’t be scared to speak with a doctor if you’re having a hard time managing your symptoms of if you’re not sure what’s wrong. Fecal incontinence is very common, and doctors are used to dealing with patients just like you. There are many treatment options available that can help you live more comfortably.

What causes fecal incontinence?

Firstly, it helps to understand how your bowel works. Your anal sphincter muscles contract which keeps stool inside and prevents stool from leaking out of your rectum. The nerves inside your bowel send signals to your brain when your bowel is full which gives you the “I Need to Go” sensation. If your sphincter muscles, nerves, or the muscular wall of the rectum are damaged or, for whatever reason, aren’t working properly, you may find yourself dealing with fecal incontinence.

  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (I.E. Crohn's Disease)
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Damage to muscles and nerves (common during childbirth)


There are many options for dealing with incontinence, depending on your symptoms. You can find many products on the market that are designed to help those suffering with fecal incontinence – Pads, protective underwear, fitted briefs, guards, and under pads are all products that can help you. A common issue that can arise for those who are incontinent, is skin irritation. If you notice any irritation around your anus, it's important that you get it treated as it can lead to ulcers which can be extremely painful. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, and whether your occasionally having leakage problems or full bowel movements, your doctor can help determine the proper products.

If your symptoms aren't manageable or do not improve with treatment, your doctor may recommend surgery. Sphincteroplasty is the most common - as it reconnects the separated ends of an anal sphincter, often torn by child birth.

Colostomy surgery is often a last resort - the surgeon will bring the colon through an opening in the abdominal wall and your stool will go into a colostomy bag which you wear. This surgery is a rare treatment for fecal incontinence as it has a greater impact on your quality of life. Thankfully, more and more colostomy surgeries performed nowadays, are temporary and reversible.


Although sometimes not an option, there are things that you can do to make it possible to prevent fecal incontinence. By staying active and following a high fiber diet, you can reduce constipation and episodes of diarrhea. If you are regularly experiencing diarrhea, a doctor will advise you to monitor your diet and eliminate any foods that upset your stomach and/or your bowel. To be proactive, you can start by creating a food journal and writing down any food or drink that you ingest and see if you notice any patterns that could be contributing.

It’s also recommended that you avoid straining during bowel movements as this will help prevent the weakening of your anal sphincter muscles.