It’s estimated up to five per cent of the population suffer from faecal incontinence. Sadly, many choose not to seek help for a condition that, in the majority of cases, can be treated simply without surgery.
Faecal incontinence is the inability to control the passage of faeces or intestinal gas from the anus. Symptoms can range from an inability to hold onto wind, to faecal urgency, or the inability to wait or 'hang on' to go to the toilet to use the bowels, right through to uncontrollable bowel action.
Symptoms may occur every day or at irregular intervals, often leaving sufferers housebound for fear of an accident. Work, social and sex life can all be affected.
While faecal incontinence is more common in the elderly, it also affects young, fit and generally healthy people. Causes include:
- injury to the muscles or nerves of the anal sphincter during childbirth.
- chronic constipation
- faecal impaction and rectal prolapse
- injury to the anal sphincter from an accident or surgery (fistula, fissure, haemorrhoids)
- diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease
- congenital conditions
- other health conditions such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, spinal injuries and dementia
- some medications.
“Childbirth is by far the most common cause of faecal incontinence,” says colorectal surgeon Adele Burgess. “It doesn’t need to have been a traumatic or difficult birth. However, having big babies, a tear, or forceps delivery does slightly increase the risk.”
While childbirth may be the cause, for many women symptoms don’t present until the muscles start to age.
“The number of women who put up with the condition because they’re of the mindset that it’s something that just goes with childbirth or aging is really disappointing,” says Adele.
Don’t suffer in silence
Faecal incontinence is quite common and symptoms are readily improved. Sadly though, many suffers simply do not seek because they’re embarrassed or misinformed about treatment options.
In most cases faecal incontinence can be treated without surgery. Often physiotherapy, medication changes, manipulating stools with diet and natural therapies is enough.
In the roughly 10 per cent of cases where surgery is required, options have improved considerably over the last ten years. Now, minimally invasive, day surgery where a small device similar to a pacemaker is inserted to strengthen the muscles is the norm.
“The number one reason we’re not able to fix this problem for people is because they don’t tell us,” says Adele.
“Many people feel uncomfortable and a little bit embarrassed,” she says. “But when we tell them how common the condition is and how easily it can be treated they’re genuinely shocked.”
If you suffer or know someone who suffers from faecal incontinence talk to your doctor and ask to see a colorectal surgeon.