Updated 28 February 2019

5 conditions that can cause uncontrolled bowel movements

Faecal incontinence is the involuntary release of faeces and can be debilitating and embarrassing. Here are some conditions that may cause it.

Urinary incontinence has been discussed at length on Health24, but the sad truth is that many people also experience faecal incontinence.

In fact, according to a recent study, as many as one in five adult women suffers from uncontrolled bowel movements. This is also a problem in men, but tends to be more common in women.

Here are the five most common conditions that can lead to faecal incontinence:

1. Diarrhoea

Diarrhoea can be caused by many conditions such as a viral or bacterial stomach infection, food poisoning, too much alcohol or a drastic change in diet. An involuntary bowel movement can, however, be more debilitating when it’s caused by a chronic disease such as irritable bowel syndrome.

2. Nerve damage

Any damage or injury to the nerves that make you feel the sensation of stool in the rectum or that control the anal sphincter could cause incontrollable bowel movements. Nerve damage can be caused by many factors such as childbirth or constant straining (if you suffer from chronic constipation).

Other chronic diseases such as diabetes or multiple sclerosis can also cause damage to the nerve points near the rectum if left unmanaged.

Physical injury to the spinal cord as the result of an accident can also cause nerve damage.

3. Radiation treatment

Radiation around the area of the scrotum and rectum is often applied as treatment for prostate cancer. While radiation is designed to zap the cancerous cells, the surrounding healthy cells may also be affected, causing injury that can lead to faecal incontinence.

Doctors do their best to eliminate exposure that may cause these side-effects, but the risk is always present.

4. Stroke

After an event such as a stroke, cognitive function can become impaired. There are many reasons why this may happen. The area of the brain that controls bowel movements may become impaired as a result of a stroke, or a patient might not be fully conscious and may have a bowel movement without being aware of it.

5. Alzheimer’s

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, many people experience either urinary or faecal incontinence in the later stages of the disease. This can be caused by various factors. A person can become unable to realise that they need to go to the loo, they may forget where the bathroom is located, or physical impairment or a loss of motor skill might make it difficult for them to get to the bathroom or remove clothing in time.

How to manage faecal incontinence

Faecal incontinence has a far-reaching impact on the quality of a patient's life. Here are a few tips on how a caretaker can help:

  • Be supportive and never make the patient feel more embarrassed than they may already be.
  • Make the toilet as user-friendly as possible and avoid any obstructions.
  • Respect the patient's need for privacy.
  • Be aware of nonverbal signs such as facial expressions or restlessness that may indicate the need to go to the bathroom when the person has lost the ability to talk.
  • If the faecal incontinence is caused by IBS, learn how to manage the condition by discussing possible medication with the patient's medical professional.

Image credit: iStock


Ask the Expert

Incontinence Expert

Dr Prenevin Govender completed his MBChB at the University of Cape Town in 2001. He obtained his Fellowship of the College of Urologists in 2009 and graduated with distinction for a Masters in Medicine from the University of Cape Town in 2010. His special interests include laparoscopic, pelvic organ prolapse and urinary incontinence surgery. He consults full-time at Life Kingsbury Hospital in Claremont.

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