Bowel incontinence 



Bowel incontinence is more common than you might think. It’s a symptom of many conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome and bowel cancer, and is a common problem for women following childbirth.

Media last reviewed: 21/10/2013

Next review due: 21/10/2015

Living with incontinence

A guide to coping with incontinence, with advice on travelling, sex, skincare, hygiene and emotional wellbeing

Bowel incontinence is an inability to control bowel movements, resulting in the involuntary passage of stools.

It is also sometimes known as faecal incontinence.

The experience of bowel incontinence can vary from person to person. Some people feel a sudden, urgent need to go to the toilet, and incontinence occurs because they are unable to reach a toilet in time. This is known as urge bowel incontinence.

Other people may experience no sensation before passing a stool, known as passive incontinence or passive soiling, or they may pass a small piece of stool while passing wind.

Some people experience incontinence on a daily basis, whereas for others the problem only occurs from time to time.

Who is affected

Bowel incontinence is much more common than most people realise: it's thought 1 in 10 people will be affected by it at some point in their life.

It can affect people of any age, although the problem is more common in elderly people. It is more common in women than men.

Why bowel incontinence happens

Bowel incontinence is not a condition in itself. It is a symptom of an underlying problem or medical condition.

Many cases are caused by diarrhoea, constipation, or weakening of the ring of muscle that controls the opening of the anus.

Bowel incontinence can also be caused by long-term conditions such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis and dementia.

Read more about the causes of bowel incontinence.

Seeking advice and treatment

Bowel incontinence can be extremely upsetting and hard to cope with, but effective treatments are available and a cure is often possible, so make sure you see your GP.

It is important to remember that:

  • Bowel incontinence is not something to be ashamed of – it is simply a medical problem that is no different from diabetes or asthma.
  • It can be treated – there is a wide range of successful treatments.
  • Bowel incontinence is not a normal part of ageing.
  • It will usually not go away on its own – most people will need treatment for the condition.

If you don't want to see your GP, you can usually make an appointment at your local NHS continence service without a referral. These clinics are staffed by specialist nurses who can offer useful advice about incontinence.

Read more about diagnosing bowel incontinence.

How bowel incontinence is treated

In many cases, with the right treatment, a person can maintain normal bowel function throughout their life.

Treatment will often depend on the cause and severity of the condition, but possible options include:

  • lifestyle and dietary changes to relieve constipation or diarrhoea
  • exercise programmes to strengthen the muscles that control the passage of stools
  • medication to control symptoms of diarrhoea and constipation
  • surgery, of which there are a number of different options

Incontinence products, such as anal plugs and disposable pads, can be used until your symptoms are better controlled.

Even if a complete cure for bowel incontinence is not possible, most people's symptoms improve significantly and they achieve a better quality of life.

Read more about treating bowel incontinence.

Page last reviewed: 13/03/2013

Next review due: 13/03/2015


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The 3 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Sam54 said on 25 March 2014

I agree 100%, I'm a 39 year old healthy mum of 4 & I didn't know what was wrong with me?
Any research I did didn't explain the exact symptoms you have.
Eventually after 2 years of tests including urodymamics &
Bowel studies. A hysterectomy has been done & now I'm booked in on the 4th June 2014 for my back wall to be lifted & rectocele fixed & perineum.
I'm hoping finally after years to feel normal again.!
Don't accept anything less than what you want.
You deserve a " normal" life ??

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User764698 said on 15 April 2013

Tottins, I know your comment is getting close to two years old, but I was told by my GP that I could have surgery for it. As I am recovering from spine surgery with complications from fibromyalgia, I'm giving it a miss for now. I find taking sennakot daily keeps it under control. But using upward & backward pressure on my perineum (and sometimes pushing on the back wall of my vagina if necessary) helps if things start to "build up". The problem to watch is "leakage" if pressure builds up in the pocket and causes problems with the muscles in the area (panty liners placed a bit further back than we are used to can be helpful if in doubt). Good luck.

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Tottins said on 13 July 2011

Nowhere on the NHS choices medical conditions pages can I find the problem experienced by many women with pelvic organ prolapse with a rectocele - that of being UNABLE to evacuate the rectum / bowel voluntarily, and having to do it manually. No advice is offered for this. Eating fruit, yoghurt and linseeds help somewhat, but not completely. It is not a matter of diet entirely, it is also due to things being misshapen, out of place and under pressure down below. Also the exit is no longer opposite the push, and when you push, nothing happens. This is not addressed anywhere here.

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