Woman holding her lower abdomen in pain

Fecal incontinence is a condition in which you cannot control your bowel movements. It is not uncommon and affects more than 5.5 million people in the United States. At NewYork-Presbyterian, we understand that fecal incontinence can be uncomfortable and impair your quality of life. We offer comprehensive programs to assess and treat fecal incontinence so you can begin feeling better and return to the activities you enjoy.

What is Fecal Incontinence?

What is Fecal Incontinence?

Those with fecal incontinence have uncontrolled bowel movements, leading to stool (feces) leakage from the rectum. While fecal incontinence can be embarrassing, discussing it with a doctor is important. Through a thorough medical exam and other tests, we can determine what’s causing your symptoms and design a care plan to meet your needs.

Causes of Fecal Incontinence


There may be more than one cause of fecal incontinence. Some of the most common causes include:

  • Complications of vaginal childbirth
  • Rectocele, a condition in some women that happens when the rectum protrudes through the vagina
  • A nervous system injury or disorder, such as multiple sclerosis
  • Chronic constipation
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis)
  • An abscess or inflammation around the anus
  • Damage to the anal sphincter, the muscle that controls the opening and closing of the anus
  • Prior surgery or radiation therapy to the anal area
  • Hemorrhoids (swelling of veins in the rectum)
  • Rectal prolapse, where the rectum sags into the anus

Signs & Symptoms of Fecal Incontinence


Fecal incontinence causes an unexpected leaking of solid stool, liquid stool (diarrhea), or mucus from the anus. It can occur temporarily due to an acute illness, or it may repeatedly happen in people with longstanding medical conditions. 

Fecal incontinence symptoms may include:

  • Urge incontinence makes you feel like you suddenly have to have a bowel movement and may not get to the toilet in time. The muscles in your lower pelvis (pelvic floor) may be too weak to hold back the stool.
  • Passive incontinence means you have a bowel movement without even knowing it. It happens when you lose the ability to sense that your rectum is full.
  • Other symptoms of fecal incontinence can include diarrhea, constipation, gas, and bloating

Risk Factors

Risk Factors

Several factors may increase your risk of developing fecal incontinence. 

  • Fecal incontinence is most common in people over age 65
  • Lack of physical activity can increase risk
  • People with certain chronic muscle, neurologic, or digestive diseases or health problems, such as diabetes or multiple sclerosis, are more likely to experience fecal incontinence
  • Vaginal childbirth and taking hormone replacement therapy in menopause both increase the risk of fecal incontinence
  • People with certain birth defects of the spinal cord, anus, or rectum may have fecal incontinence



Fecal incontinence can have numerous effects on your health and well-being.

  • Irritation may develop in the skin around the anus from the frequent and prolonged passage of stool through the area
  • You may feel embarrassment, shame, anger, depression, and a loss of self-esteem and be more prone to isolate yourself because you are afraid of where and when you may have a bowel movement
  • Your quality of life may suffer if you cannot exercise, work, or attend school or social gatherings. The need to always be near a toilet can be very limiting and frustrating.



Depending on the cause of your fecal incontinence, there may be ways to reduce or prevent your symptoms.

  • Prevent constipation by exercising, getting enough fiber in your diet, and consuming adequate water and other liquids during your day
  • Manage diarrhea by taking care of its cause, such as treating an intestinal infection
  • Try not to strain during a bowel movement. It can weaken the muscles of the anal sphincter.
Get Care

Get Fecal Incontinence Care at NewYork-Presbyterian

When you come to NewYork-Presbyterian for care, you’ll benefit from a compassionate healthcare team that includes gastroenterologists, urogynecologists, colorectal surgeons, dietitians, nurses, and others with experience diagnosing and treating fecal incontinence.

Our shared goal is to restore your bowel control and quality of life. We’ll review your fecal incontinence treatment options and assemble a plan of care that meets your personal needs. Call us for an appointment today.