Treating bowel incontinence
Treatment for bowel incontinence depends on underlying cause and the pattern of your symptoms.
Trying the least intrusive treatments first, such as dietary changes and exercise programmes, is often recommended.
Medication and surgery are usually only considered if other treatments haven't worked.
The various treatments for bowel incontinence are outlined below. You can also read a summary of the pros and cons of the treatments for bowel incontinence, allowing you to compare your treatment options.
You may find it helpful to use continence products until your bowel incontinence is better controlled. Most continence products are available for free on the NHS.
Anal plugs are one way to prevent involuntary soiling. An anal plug is made of foam and designed to be inserted into your bottom. However, they can be uncomfortable and they're not really a long term solution.
If the plug comes into contact with moisture from the bowel, it expands and prevents leakage or soiling. Anal plugs can be worn for up to 12 hours, after which time they are removed using an attached string.
Disposable body pads are contoured pads that soak up liquid stools and protect your skin. They can be used in cases of mild bowel incontinence.
Single-use silicone inserts, which form a seal around the rectum until your next bowel movement, are also being investigated as a treatment option for moderate to severe bowel incontinence.
Your local NHS continence service can offer help and advice about continence products, and you don't usually need a referral from your GP to make an appointment. These clinics are staffed by nurses who specialise in continence treatment.
Read more about incontinence support on the NHS.
When you're out
- Wear trousers or skirts that are easy to undo and have elasticated waistbands rather than buttons.
- Disability Rights UK offers access to 9,000 disabled toilets around the UK with a Radar NKS key. The key costs £4.50 and is only sold to people who require use of toilet facilities due to a disability or health condition.
Bowel incontinence associated with diarrhoea or constipation can often be controlled by making changes to your diet.
It may be beneficial to keep a food diary to record the effect of your diet on your symptoms.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has published dietary advice for managing diarrhoea in cases of irritable bowel syndrome (PDF, 39Kb). These guidelines can also be applied to people with diarrhoea associated with bowel incontinence.
The advice from NICE includes the following:
- limit fibre intake from wholegrain breads, bran, cereals, nuts and seeds (except golden linseeds)
- avoid skin, pips and pith from fruit and vegetables
- limit fresh and dried fruit to three portions a day and fruit juice to one small glass a day (make up the recommended ‘five a day’ with vegetables)
- limit how often you have fizzy drinks and drinks containing caffeine
- avoid foods high in fat, such as chips, fast foods and burgers
A high-fibre diet is usually recommended for most people with constipation-associated bowel incontinence. Your GP can tell you if a high-fibre diet is suitable for you.
Fibre can soften stools, making them easier to pass. Foods that are high in fibre include:
- fruit and vegetables
- wholegrain rice
- wholewheat pasta
- wholemeal bread
- seeds, nuts and oats
Drink plenty of fluids because this can help to soften your stools and make them easier to pass.
Pelvic floor muscle training
Pelvic floor muscle training is a type of exercise programme used to treat cases of bowel incontinence caused by weakness in the pelvic floor muscles.
A therapist, usually a physiotherapist or specialist nurse, will teach you a range of exercises. The goal of pelvic floor muscle training is to strengthen any muscles that may have been stretched and weakened.
You'll probably be required to carry out the exercises three times a day, for six to eight weeks. After this time, you should notice an improvement in your symptoms.
Exercises to try
Check with your health professional before trying these at home.
First, pretend you're trying to hold in a bowel movement. You should feel the muscles around your anus tighten.
Next, sit, stand, or lie in a comfortable position with your legs slightly apart.
- Squeeze your pelvic floor muscles for as long as you can, then relax. Repeat five times.
- Squeeze the muscles as hard as you can, then relax. Repeat five times.
- Squeeze the muscles quickly, then relax. Repeat five times.
If you find these exercises too difficult, try fewer repetitions at first and build them up. If they get too easy, try doing more repetitions. You can do the exercises without anyone knowing about them, so they should be easy to fit into your daily routine.
Bowel retraining is a type of treatment for people with reduced sensation in their rectum as a result of nerve damage, or for those who have recurring episodes of constipation.
There are three goals in bowel retraining:
- to improve the consistency of your stools
- to establish a regular time for you to empty your bowels
- to find ways of stimulating your bowels to empty themselves
Changes to your diet usually improve stool consistency (see above).
Establishing a regular time to empty your bowels means finding the most convenient time when you can go to the toilet without being rushed.
Ways to stimulate bowel movements can differ from person to person. Some people find a hot drink and meal can help. Others may need to stimulate their anus using their finger.
Biofeedback is a type of bowel retraining exercise that involves placing a small electric probe into your bottom.
The sensor relays detailed information about the movement and pressure of the muscles in your rectum to an attached computer.
You're then asked to perform a series of exercises designed to improve your bowel function. The sensor checks that you are performing the exercises in the right way.
Medication can be used to help treat soft or loose stools or constipation associated with bowel incontinence.
Loperamide is a medicine widely used to treat diarrhoea. It works by slowing down the movement of stools through the digestive system, allowing more water to be absorbed from the stools. Loperamide can be prescribed in low doses to be taken regularly over a long period of time.
Laxatives are used to treat constipation. They're a type of medicine that helps you to pass stools. Bulk-forming laxatives are usually recommended. These help your stools to retain fluid. This means they're less likely to dry out, which can lead to faecal impaction.
Enemas or rectal irrigation
Rectal irrigation or enemas are used when bowel incontinence is caused by faecal impaction and other treatments have failed to remove the impacted stool from the rectum.
These procedures involve a small tube that is placed into your anus. A special solution is then used to wash out your rectum.
Surgery is usually only recommended after all other treatment options have been tried.
The main surgical treatments used on the NHS are sphincteroplasty and sacral nerve stimulation. Other treatments – such as tibial nerve stimulation, endoscopic heat therapy and artificial sphincter surgery – can also be used, but their availability on the NHS is limited.
An operation called a colostomy is more widely available on the NHS, but it's only used if other treatments are unsuccessful.
These treatments are outlined in more detail below.
A sphincteroplasty is an operation to repair damaged sphincter muscles. The surgeon removes some of the muscle tissue and the muscle edges are overlapped and sewn back together. This provides extra support to the muscles, which makes them stronger.
Sacral nerve stimulation
Sacral nerve stimulation is a treatment used for people with weakened sphincter muscles.
Electrodes are inserted under the skin in the lower back and connected to a pulse generator. The generator releases pulses of electricity that stimulate the sacral nerves, which causes the sphincter and pelvic floor muscles to work more effectively.
At first, the pulse generator is located outside your body. If the treatment is effective, the pulse generator will be implanted deep under the skin in your back.
The most commonly reported complications of the procedure are infection at the site of surgery and technical problems with the pulse generator, which require additional surgery to correct.
See the NICE guidelines on Sacral nerve stimulation for faecal incontinence.
Tibial nerve stimulation
Tibial nerve stimulation is a fairly new treatment for bowel incontinence.
A fine needle is inserted into the tibial nerve just above the ankle and an electrode is placed on the foot. A mild electric current is passed through the needle to stimulate the tibial nerve. It's not known exactly how this treatment works, but it's thought to work in a similar way to sacral nerve stimulation.
NICE concludes that the procedure appears to be safe, although there are still uncertainties about how well it works.
See the NICE guidelines on Treating faecal incontinence by stimulating the tibial nerve.
Injectable bulking agents
Bulking agents, such as collagen or silicone, can be injected into the muscles of the sphincter and rectum to strengthen them.
The use of bulking agents in this way is a fairly new technique, so there's little information about their long-term effectiveness and safety.
You should discuss the possible advantages and disadvantages of this type of treatment in full with your treatment team before deciding whether to proceed.
See the NICE guidelines on Treating faecal incontinence with injectable bulking agents.
Endoscopic heat therapy
Endoscopic radiofrequency (heat) therapy is a fairly new treatment for bowel incontinence.
Heat energy is applied to the sphincter muscles through a thin probe, to encourage scarring of the tissue. This helps tighten the muscles and helps to control bowel movements.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recently produced guidelines on this procedure. NICE concluded that the procedure appears to be safe, although there are still uncertainties about how well it works.
As well as the uncertainties surrounding this procedure, it is also expensive. Therefore, it is usually only used on the NHS during clinical trials.
See the NICE guidelines on Treating faecal incontinence using endoscopic radiofrequency therapy.
An artificial sphincter may be implanted if you have bowel incontinence caused by a problem with your sphincter muscles.
This operation involves placing a circular cuff under the skin around the anus. The cuff is filled with fluid and sits tightly around the anus, keeping it closed.
A tube is placed under the skin from the cuff to a control pump. In men, the pump is placed near the testicles, in women it’s placed near the vagina. A special balloon is placed into the tummy, and this is connected to the control pump by tubing that runs under the skin.
The pump is activated by pressing a button located under the skin. This drains the fluid from the cuff into the balloon, so your anus opens and you can pass stools. When you are finished, the fluid slowly refills the cuff and the anus closes.
The use of an artificial sphincter is a relatively new procedure, so there isn't much good-quality information about its long-term effectiveness and safety.
Possible problems include infection, injury during surgery and the cuff becoming dislodged. In some cases, further surgery is required to correct problems.
See the NICE guidelines on Treating faecal incontinence with an artificial sphincter inserted through a cut in the abdomen.
A colostomy is usually only recommended if other surgical treatments are unsuccessful.
A colostomy is a surgical procedure in which your colon (lower bowel) is cut and brought through the wall of your stomach to create an artificial opening. Your stools can then be collected in a bag, known as a colostomy bag, which is attached to the opening.
Page last reviewed: 12/02/2015
Next review due: 12/02/2017