Normal bowel control occurs when your pelvic muscles, rectum (the lower end of the large intestine), sphincter muscles (the muscles in the anus), and nervous system all function normally. The loss of function in one or more of these can result in bowel dysfunction, also known as bowel or fecal incontinence. This means you are having problems controlling your flatulence or bowels.
Bowel incontinence can range from the occasional involuntary release of gas or small stool leakages to complete loss of bowel control. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, millions of Americans suffer from bowel dysfunction. It affects both males and females of all ages.
What are some of the symptoms of bowel dysfunction?
Bowel incontinence symptoms can include:
- Constipation (difficulty pooping or irregular bowel habits)
- Difficulty emptying bowel or feeling that the bowel movement is incomplete even though it is
- Fecal incontinence (periodic or frequent accidental stool leakage)
- Fecal impaction (large lump of dry, hard stool that gets stuck in the rectum or lower colon)
- Bowel urgency (strong contractions and unexpected anal relaxation causing people to drop everything to go to the bathroom)
- Diarrhea (loose watery stool)
- Flatulent incontinence (bloating or inability to hold in gas)
What causes bowel dysfunction?
Bowel dysfunction can be caused by a myriad of problems, including:
- Sedentary lifestyle with little to no physical activity, including too much sitting or lying down
- Neurological diseases (e.g., Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson's Disease, stroke or dementia)
- Nerve damage or muscle damage/weakness in the nerves and muscles surrounding the anus resulting from difficulty with vaginal childbirth, an injury or aging
- Type 2 diabetes
- Hemorrhoids (swollen and inflamed veins around your anus or in your lower rectum)
- Chronic constipation
- Pelvic floor disorders such as rectal prolapse or rectocele (posterior vaginal prolapse in women)
- Scarring or stiffness in the rectum due to surgery, radiation treatment or inflammatory bowel disease
- Birth defect of the anus, rectum, or colon, such as Hirschsprung disease
- Birth defects in the spine or spinal cord injuries
Is there anything I can do to prevent bowel dysfunction?
Depending on the cause of the bowel dysfunction, the following may help:
- Exercise regularly and eat more high fiber foods.
- Stay hydrated - drink plenty of water.
- Control or treat causes of diarrhea. This can involve something as simple as cutting down on dairy products or treating an intestinal infection.
- Avoid straining during bowel movements. Straining can cause the weaking of sphincter muscles or damage nerves, which can lead to long-term or even permanent fecal incontinence.
Many people find bowel incontinence embarrassing, which is why they generally don’t talk about it, and worse yet, don’t see a doctor about it. Bowel incontinence is manageable and treatable. The therapists at Pelvic & Orthopedic Physical Therapy Specialists can help stop the embarrassment and improve the quality of your life. Don’t suffer in silence, call us to set up an appointment today.