Fecal Incontinence

Article Author:
Rushikesh Shah
Article Editor:
Juan Villanueva Herrero
6/4/2019 1:01:40 PM
PubMed Link:
Fecal Incontinence


Fecal incontinence (FI) is the involuntary passage of fecal matter through anus or inability to control the discharge of bowel contents. Its severity can range from an involuntary passage of flatus to complete evacuation of fecal matter. Depending on the severity of disease, it has a significant impact on a patient’s quality of life [1].


Causes include: 

  • Central nervous system (CNS)
  • Autonomic nervous system (ANS)
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Diabetes mellitus (DM)
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Cerebrovascular accident (CVA)


The prevalence of FI is difficult to estimate because often, this condition is underreported due to social stigma. The overall reported prevalence of FI ranges from 2% to 21% with a median of 7.7%. There is significant variation depending on age. Prevalence of FI is reported as 7% in women younger than 30 years which rises to 22% in their seventh decades. In geriatric patients, prevalence is reported as high as 25% to 35% of nursing home residents and 10% to 25% of hospitalized patients. In fact, FI is the second leading cause of nursing home placement in the geriatric population. [2][3]


It is vital to understand the physiology of continence to understand the pathophysiology of incontinence. The anatomical structures which help to maintain control of bowel function are the following:

  • Rectum as a stool reservoir and can hold up to 300 ml volume without any increase in pressure. Beyond this limit, an urge to defecate occurs. The rectum is connected with the anus which is a 3 cm to 4 cm hollow muscular tube which at rest lies at 90-degree angle from the rectum. During defecation, this angle becomes obtuse, about 110 to 130 degrees allowing for the passage of stool.
  • Internal anal sphincter which is innervated by an enteric nervous system is responsible for 80% to 85% of anal canal resting tone. The anorectal inhibitory reflex allows for the internal sphincter to relax allowing anal sensory receptors to sense rectal contents. This helps to differentiate solid or liquid stool from gas.
  • External anal sphincter, innervated by pudendal nerve, contracts and maintains continence during a sudden increase in intraabdominal pressure such as during coughing or lifting.
  • Puborectalis muscle forms a sling around the anorectal junction and maintains the anorectal angle which maintains the anatomical barrier against discharge of stool.

History and Physical


Fecal incontinence can be differentiated as the following three different subtypes:

  • Passive incontinence: Passive discharge of fecal material without any awareness; indicates neurological disease, impaired anorectal reflexes or sphincter dysfunction
  • Urge Incontinence: Inability to retain stool despite active attempts with preserved sensation; indicates sphincter dysfunction or inability of the rectum to hold stool
  • Fecal seepage: Undesired leakage of stool often after a bowel movement with normal continence.

Essential history to assess underlying etiology in FI include:

  • Nature of incontinence (gas, stool consistency), history of urgency
  • Onset, duration, timing
  • Effect of FI on quality of life
  • H/O constipation
  • Medication which can cause constipation or diarrhea
  • Medical history (IBD, DM, thyroid problems, spinal problem, neurological diseases, urinary incontinence)
  • Obstetric history in female (use of forceps, perineal tears, number of deliveries).

Physical Examination

A detailed neurological exam should be performed to evaluate for neurological disease. A detailed rectal exam is a key in the evaluation of FI; it can be best divided into following steps, but the accuracy of rectal exam and evaluation of various structures depend to a large extent on examiner’s experience:

  • Inspection: Examine for hemorrhoids, the presence of the fecal matter, scars, skin excoriation. Also, assess for prolapse and excess perineal descent (more than 3 cm).
  • Anal wink reflex: Can be done by gently stroking perianal skin by cotton bud which will cause brisk contraction of the external anal sphincter. The absence of this reflex indicates loss of spinal arc and possibly underlying neurological disease.
  • During the digital rectal exam, a resting rectal tone should be assessed to evaluate internal anal sphincter. After this patient should be asked to bear down during which function of puborectalis (to straighten the anorectal angle) as well as pelvic floor muscles can be assessed. The final step is to ask the patient to squeeze during which increased pressure due to contraction of the external anal sphincter is felt.  


Diagnostic testing is guided by whether incontinence is related to stool consistency [4][5].

If diarrhea is suspected as a primary reason for incontinence:

  • Stool studies for infection, osmolality, fat content and pancreatic insufficiency
  • Evaluation of diabetes and thyroid disorder
  • Evaluate for bacterial overgrowth and lactose/fructose intolerance
  • Colonoscopy to evaluate mucosal disease (IBD/Colitis), mass, ulcer, and stricture.

If incontinence is without any diarrhea then more specific testing should be pursued. The most valuable tests for the evaluation of FI are anorectal manometry and endoscopic ultrasound. Defecography is usually reserved for refractory symptoms or before operative planning intervention.

  • Endoscopic Ultrasound (EUS)
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
  • Electromyography (EMG

Treatment / Management

Supportive Measures [6][7][8]

  • Supportive measures to improve patient’s generalized well-being and nutritional status
  • Hygiene maintenance: avoid perianal skin soiling with regular cleaning, zinc oxide application, incontinence pads.
  • Avoid food which can provoke diarrhea (high lactose/ fructose diet)
  • Patient with mild cognitive impairment might benefit from regular defecation program.

Medical Management

Directed at improving stool consistency and reducing stool frequency

  • Bulking agents (methylcellulose) to improve stool consistency
  • Loperamide (Imodium) 4 mg three times a day to reduce stool frequency, improve urgency, increase colonic transit time and increases anal sphincter resting tone
  • Diphenoxylate (Lomotil) also results in clinical improvement, but objective tests do not improve
  • Treatment of other underlying disorders if suspected such as bile salt malabsorption, IBS, and IBD
  • In post-menopausal women, estrogen replacement therapy might be beneficial
  • In cases of combined urinary and fecal incontinence, amitriptyline might be helpful.

If the above therapy fails, further investigation should be done with anorectal manometry with imaging (EUS/MRI).

Biofeedback Therapy

Indicated for patients with impaired external sphincter tone and loss of sensation to rectal distention if detected during manometry. Biofeedback therapy is based on the concept of cognitive retraining of the pelvic floor and abdominal musculature to overcome the above defects. Studies report a wide range of success rate ranging from 38 % to 100%. This wide variation is due to small-scale studies with methodological limitation with a different definition of outcomes.


In patients with refractory symptoms that do not respond to the above measures.

Surgical approaches can be divided into four categories:

  • For patients with the simple structural abnormality of sphincters, such as due to obstetric trauma, overlapping sphincter repair might be sufficient. The success rate is 70% to 80%.
  • For patients with the anatomically intact but weak sphincter, post anal approach for augmentation of anorectal angle is performed. The success rate is 20% to 58%.
  • For patients with severe structural damage to the anal sphincter, construction of neosphincter is performed using either autologous skeletal muscle (gracilis or gluteus) or artificial bowel sphincter. The success rate is 38% to 90%.
  • Rectal augmentation (side to side ileorectal pouch or ileo-rectoplasty) is considered in patients with the reservoir or rectal sensorimotor dysfunction.

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

Fecal incontinence has multiple causes and is best managed by an interprofessional team that includes a pediatric surgeon, colorectal surgeon, dietitian, internist, a pediatrician, and a mental health worker. The treatment depends on the cause; the majority of non-congenital causes can be managed with conservative treatment and a change in diet but most congenital disorders require corrective surgery. The outcomes do depend on the cause, but in a significant number of people, recurrence is common and the quality of life is poor [9][10].


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