Faecal incontinence

Originally published on: April 6th, 2017. Last modified on October 5th, 2021

Faecal incontinence – also known as bowel incontinence – is more common than you would think. Unfortunately, it is a subject which is still not as openly talked about as it should be. Bowel incontinence affects over 53 million people in Europe making it more prevalent than many well-known diseases such as asthma or diabetes.

What is Faecal Incontinence?

If you are unable to control a liquid stool (diarrhoea) or a solid motion, then you have faecal incontinence. This may be a daily problem or happen from time to time. You may also experience involuntary passage or loss of wind.

Bowel Incontinence Causes

There are several causes of bowel incontinence, or faecal incontinence and some are more common than others. The most common cause of faecal incontinence is damage to one or both of the anal sphincter muscles. Causes of anal sphincter damage can include tears to the anal sphincter during childbirth.

The external anal sphincter is responsible for delaying bowel emptying once the rectum fills and the urge to empty the bowel is felt.  People with a weak or damaged external sphincter muscle typically experience urgency and if they can’t reach a toilet in time, they become incontinent.

Bowel Incontinence Symptoms

People with a damaged internal anal sphincter usually complain of ‘passive soiling’. Soft stool or small pellets of stool just leak out without the person realising it is happening.

Other common causes are;

  • Constipation can be both a cause of faecal incontinence and also a symptom of faecal incontinence. You can become constipated if you have difficulty emptying your bowel
  • Diarrhoea can be a cause of faecal incontinence and also a symptom of faecal incontinence. Diarrhoea can be chronic, i.e. on-going and reoccurring, or acute, i.e. sudden and unexpected
  • People with disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Stroke, spinal cord injury and Alzheimer’s can sometimes develop faecal incontinence that is associated with their illness
  • Some medications like antibiotics can cause loose stools /diarrhoea which may make symptoms worse
  • People with inflammatory bowel diseases which can cause diarrhoea and an urgent need to go to the toilet.

Patient Stories

Sometimes reading a patient story can help you more than reading an information sheet. We currently have a faecal incontinence patient story available. If you would like read this real life account of living with faecal incontinence and the treatments used to manage the symptoms, please visit our Patient Stories section and look for Adam’s Story.

Further Information

We have a information sheet on faecal incontinence which contains further information.

If you are concerned about your problem and it is starting to affect your day to day life make an appointment to see your doctor, continence nurse, specialist physiotherapist or colorectal nurse specialist. A continence nurse and specialist physiotherapist are healthcare professionals who specialise in bladder and bowel problems.

Before you see you’re GP, It is useful to keep a Bowel Diary for a week or so before your appointment to record things such as how many times you go to the toilet, any accidents you have and what you eat or drink. This will be useful for the Doctor as it may highlight an underlying cause of your symptoms.

Further Information

Bowel Incontinence Treatments

The key to treating bowel incontinence - also known as faecal incontinence - is to find the condition that is causing this. Chronic constipation and a weak pelvic floor are two of the most common causes of faecal incontinence and in many…