Anyone who suffers from fecal incontinence (FI) is bound to find the condition frustrating and embarrassing. For those who are caring for a loved one with FI, it can be difficult to know how to handle and help with the symptoms. While most people are reluctant to discuss this condition with their family and their doctor, addressing it head on can yield valuable information and hope for a healthier and happier life.

Below, you’ll find answers to common questions about fecal incontinence, such as root causes, treatment options and tips for managing daily life with the condition. Talking about incontinence is not easy, and this is even truer when it comes to talking about bowel incontinence. It’s important to spread this information and encourage candid discussions between families and their health care providers.

What Is Fecal Incontinence?

Fecal incontinence is an inability to control bowel movements, which may result in stool leaking. A person dealing with bowel incontinence may pass some stool when attempting to pass gas, or they may experience a complete lack of control.

Sometimes this loss of control happens because of short-term illnesses, such as diarrhea or gastroenteritis, but other times it may be associated with a longer-term illness or even general aging. Age-related decline can cause changes in and/or damage to muscles and nerves in the bowel, resulting in FI. Ironically, the condition can also be the result of chronic constipation. If a person becomes impacted, sometimes “overflow” stool can leak from the rectum.

How Is Fecal Incontinence Diagnosed?

A primary care provider will ask questions about symptoms, including how long they have been occurring and what types of events bring them on. If a loved one is experiencing recurring accidents, it is important to understand the nature of them as fully as possible. For example, some older individuals experience urge incontinence, which occurs when they cannot make it to the bathroom in time, while others may experience passive incontinence, which happens when they are unaware that they need to have a bowel movement.

Although it can be embarrassing to discuss in detail, it is crucial to gather as much information as you can to help your loved one’s physician understand the situation fully. Keeping a diary of eating and drinking habits, symptoms, and digestive issues can help narrow down possible causes. The doctor may also perform some diagnostic tests, including a colonoscopy, to determine the underlying cause.

Treatment Options for Fecal Incontinence

The treatment for bowel control problems is largely dependent on the cause. For example, if diarrhea is the culprit, a doctor may prescribe bulk laxatives and/or bulking agents to develop more solid stools that are easier to control, thereby reducing leakage.

Another way to treat fecal incontinence is by making some dietary changes. If chronic constipation is the underlying issue, diet can play a significant role in either contributing to or minimizing symptoms. Increasing fluid intake and eating more fiber-rich foods can help alleviate constipation and prevent accidents.

Exercise may also help, especially activities that are targeted at improving anal sphincter function and strengthening the pelvic floor muscles (Kegels). A trained therapist can provide the instructions needed to address these muscles and improve bowel and bladder control. Adding biofeedback therapy to this regimen helps ensure the movements are being performed correctly and increase one’s awareness of the subtler sensations involved in bodily functions.

Bowel training is another option that can promote regular bowel movements (BMs) and prevent accidents, but it takes time to become effective. Essentially, one devises and adheres to a pattern of having bowel movements at specific times throughout the day. By following a schedule, the body gets used to going at those prescribed times (like after meals), which decreases the chances of incontinence.

In very serious cases, surgical options, such as sphincteroplasty, injections of non-absorbable bulking agents, sacral nerve stimulation or even bowel diversion might be recommended to better manage symptoms. It all depends on the patient’s overall health and the main cause of their limited bowel control.

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Living with Limited Bowel Control

For some individuals, more significant muscle and nerve damage from diseases like diabetes, multiple sclerosis, stroke and dementia can make treating and managing incontinence much more complicated. Adequate planning can help decrease the likelihood of accidents and ensure seniors and their caregivers are prepared in the event one does occur.

Taking a “Plan B Bag” that contains extra clothing, wipes, disposable underwear or pads, and a sealable bag for soiled items is always a good idea while you’re out and about with a loved one who is incontinent. Mapping out public restrooms and being diligent about using them as they are available and before they are needed can also prevent mishaps.

If possible, try to avoid any known triggers. Each person is different, but eating tends to be a natural trigger for increased bowel activity. Organizing outings around meals or taking an antidiarrheal medication before eating may help your loved one avoid issues. You might need to help them pay closer attention to their body and learn to pick up on subtle signs yourself. This is difficult but can be done.

Maintaining Skin Integrity and Comfort

This condition can have profound psychological effects, such as embarrassment, depression and isolation, but bowel control problems can also cause physical discomfort. Irritation to tissues in the rectal area is unpleasant, but this can quickly turn into a more serious problem. Prevention is the best medicine, so do not wait until a loved one develops a complication from FI to seek out better ways of managing their symptoms and caring for their skin.

The four biggest incontinence-related threats to skin integrity are moisture, altered skin pH, microorganisms and friction. It is of upmost importance to ensure that a patient’s perineal area is always clean, dry and conditioned. Make a point of changing damp or soiled garments immediately, cleanse and/or rinse the area thoroughly, and allow it to air dry as often as possible. These steps will reduce odor, maintain skin integrity and keep your loved one comfortable.

Exercise caution when cleansing or drying with a washcloth or applying topical products, though. Even if a loved one is diligent about their hygiene and skin care, friction from some of these steps can cause injury to delicate, thin skin. Gently pat the skin to dry or apply creams instead of using wiping or rubbing motions.

While soap and water is a go-to for most people, special incontinence products are formulated to cleanse effectively while minimizing skin irritation. Examples include no-rinse cleansers and barrier ointments, creams or sprays. Barrier products are crucial for protecting the skin from over-exposure to moisture, friction, irritation and bacteria that contribute to incontinence dermatitis (diaper rash), infections and even pressure ulcers. For some, a bidet is helpful for adequate rinsing both after normal BMs and episodes of incontinence.

If your loved one uses disposable incontinence products, such as liners, briefs or bed pads, be sure to choose items that have a soft outer layer that wicks moisture away from the skin and into an absorbent core. Although some products may do a better job of containing accidents, try to avoid those that keep dampness trapped against the skin. This will only cause more problems in the long run.

Seeking Help With FI

Fecal incontinence is not an easy condition for patients or their caregivers to manage, but there are ways to minimize symptoms. The first step in improving your loved one’s condition and quality of life is to speak to their primary care provider.