Aging & Health A to Z
Care & Treatment
Depending on what is causing or contributing to fecal incontinence, your healthcare provider may recommend one or more of the following:
- changes in diet
- pelvic floor muscle exercises
- “bowel training”
- other therapies
- a combination of the above
Both constipation and diarrhea can contribute to fecal incontinence. If you have constipation, drinking enough water and other clear liquids (eight or more 8-ounce glasses daily) and adding high-fiber foods to your diet can make your stools softer and easier to pass. Whole grains, fruits, vegetables, dried beans and other legumes are all good sources of fiber. Ask your healthcare provider whether you should also take fiber supplements. Be sure to increase the amount of fiber in your diet gradually. If you overdo it, you may develop diarrhea. Caffeine, which can also contribute to diarrhea and fecal incontinence as well, should be limited by cutting back on items such as cola drinks, coffee, tea, cocoa, and chocolate. Many sugar-free diet drinks, foods, and chewable medications contain artificial sweeteners, such as sorbitol, that can cause chronic diarrhea.
If necessary, your healthcare provider may prescribe drugs or recommend over-the-counter medications. He or she may recommend a “bulking agent” such as methylcellulose, to make stools bulkier and less watery. If you have diarrhea and it continues even after you make changes to your diet, your healthcare provider may prescribe an anti-diarrheal medication such as loperamide (Imodium). Some prescription and over-the-counter medications may cause diarrhea or constipation as a side effect, and your healthcare provider should check your regular medications for these potential problems.
Exercises and biofeedback
Exercises that strengthen your pelvic floor muscles may improve your ability to control your bowels. Your healthcare provider can show you how to do these exercises. Your provider may refer you to pelvic floor rehabilitation therapy, during which a specially-trained physical therapist will perform an evaluation and recommend an exercise plan. Your provider or physical therapist may recommend biofeedback—a technique for training your body by closely focusing on information it provides—to make sure you’re doing the exercises properly. Biofeedback can help re-train pelvic floor and nearby muscles.
“Bowel training” can be particularly helpful if cognitive problems or physical disabilities are contributing to fecal incontinence. Training involves trying to have a bowel movement at scheduled times of each day—say, after every meal. It can improve constipation by getting the body in the habit of having regular bowel movements.
When fecal incontinence is due to damage to the sphincters or to the pelvic floor, your healthcare provider may recommend surgery. One type of surgery, called sphincteroplasty, can repair damage to rectal sphincters due to childbirth or other injuries. Another type of surgery involves implanting an inflatable cuff, called an artificial sphincter, at the end of the rectum.
Updated: January 2017
Posted: March 2012