rectal incontinence

What You Need to Know About Rectal Incontinence




By Heath Beckham, MD, FACS, FASCRS

When most people hear the words “rectal incontinence,” they do not think warm, happy thoughts. Embarrassment, shame, denial, and other negative emotions often come up. But as you might expect, at a place nicknamed, The Butt Hutt, rectal incontinence is something we have a lot of experience helping patients with. There are solutions, and it’s nothing to feel bad about. 

How Common Is Rectal Incontinence?

Rectal incontinence is also called bowel incontinence or fecal incontinence. It is the inability to control one's bowel movements, causing uncontrollable leakage from the rectum. The condition has a range of severity from occasional stool leakage while passing gas to a complete loss of bowel control. The term "accidental bowel leakage" is also used and sometimes preferred.

The condition is not uncommon. Between 1% to 15% of patients have some degree of symptoms. It is more common in women than in men and more common in older patients than in younger ones. In a study of 6,000 women over the age of 45, 20% reported an episode at least once per year, and 9.5% reported an episode at least once per month.

Causes of Rectal Incontinence

So what causes people to have this problem? There are many causes, such as injury, disease, and age, as mentioned above. Here are some specific examples of causes we see often:

  • childbirth-related injuries resulting in a tear to the anal muscles or injury to the nerves controlling sphincter function
  • trauma to anal muscles from anal operations or traumatic injury
  • age-related loss of anal muscle strength
  • neurological diseases
  • medication side effects

It probably goes without saying that with any of these issues and with any degree of severity, the biggest challenge often involves the embarrassment people feel. It can also be a socially isolating condition that can alter the patient’s lifestyle.

Solutions for Rectal Incontinence

But, there is good news. While treatment for rectal incontinence is very individualized, we do have options through nonsurgical and surgical methods. Nonsurgical options involve dietary changes, constipating medications, muscle strengthening exercises, and biofeedback. Surgical options often involve surgical muscle repair, stimulation of the nerves, and surgical colostomy.

Depending on the exact situation, the causes of rectal incontinence, and severity of the symptoms, the patient’s quality of life is usually improved to varying degrees with treatment. Rectal incontinence does not have to be a lifelong problem or something that drastically reduces your quality of life. Don’t feel embarrassed to talk to your doctor about treatment options. We have seen and heard it all before, and we would love to help you live a life not defined by rectal incontinence.

Alabama Colon & Rectal Institute is centered around treating diseases of the colon, rectum, and anus.

Alabama Colon & Rectal Institute (also known as the “Butt Hutt” around town!) has been in practice since 1990 as a free standing, private practice located in downtown Birmingham, Alabama.  We are known for our efficiency and patient care, in a more relaxed office-based setting.  Our doctors are known regionally for their expertise and are active in teaching surgical residents and other physicians.  We are also a major sponsor of The Rumpshaker 5K, a race that promotes awareness about colorectal cancer.  Check out our website for more information, or give us a call to make an appointment at (205) 458-5000, or email us at [email protected].