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Fecal Incontinence

What Is It? & Symptoms

Monday, Aug. 27, 2007; 7:45 PM

Copyright Harvard Health Publications 2007

What Is It?

Table of Contents

When stool (feces) is released from the bowel accidentally, it is known as fecal incontinence. Under normal circumstances, stool enters the end portion of the large intestine, called the rectum, where it is stored. As the rectum fills with stool, the anal sphincter muscle (a circular muscle surrounding the anal canal) prevents feces from leaving the rectum until it is time to have a deliberate (controlled) bowel movement.

Various conditions can cause stool to escape. The rectum may start to lose its ability to store the stool, the person may be unable to feel that the rectum is full, or the anal sphincter may be too weak to hold the pressure of the stool in the rectum. A person also must be alert to the need to empty the bowels, and be mobile enough to reach the bathroom in time. Diarrhea from any cause makes incontinence worse (since it is more difficult to control liquid stool than solid stool).

The problem can be caused by several conditions. Muscle or nerve damage usually is involved in chronic (long-term) cases of fecal incontinence.

Damage to muscles can be caused by:

  • Childbirth

  • Rectal surgery

  • Inflammatory bowel disease

  • Trauma

Damage to nerves can be caused by:

  • Diabetes

  • Spinal cord injury

  • Multiple sclerosis

  • Unknown factors


Symptoms of fecal incontinence can range from mild soiling when passing gas to complete inability to contain solid stool.

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