One in seven Americans suffers from fecal incontinence, but is anyone talking about it? Augusta University expert offers treatments, research to help

One in seven Americans suffers from fecal incontinence, but is anyone talking about it? Augusta University expert offers treatments, research to help

March 7, 20225 min read

Bowel or fecal incontinence, according to the Mayo Clinic, “is the inability to control bowel movements, causing stool (feces) to leak unexpectedly from the rectum. Also called bowel incontinence, fecal incontinence ranges from an occasional leakage of stool while passing gas to a complete loss of bowel control. Common causes of fecal incontinence include diarrhea, constipation, and muscle or nerve damage. The muscle or nerve damage may be associated with aging or with giving birth.”

Dr. Satish Rao is a seasoned gastroenterologist and an expert in digestive health, particularly the brain-gut connection. Rao, a professor of medicine at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, recently offered a Q&A on the topic of fecal incontinence with the journal Gastroenterology & Hepatology.

What is the prevalence of fecal incontinence in the adult population?

Surveys have indicated a prevalence of approximately 9% to 10% in the United States. A recent study reported a 14% prevalence, although this study was Internet-based and, thus, may not have included many elderly patients, as they may not be as computer-savvy as younger patients.

It is safe to say that one in seven Americans currently suffers from fecal incontinence. Prevalence appears to be equal in men and women, although women outnumber men almost three to one when it comes to gastroenterology clinic visits and health care-seeking. Men may be too embarrassed to bring the issue of fecal incontinence to the attention of a physician, but when asked about it, they will admit and discuss it.

Also, extracting information from a patient about fecal incontinence depends on how the question is asked. Asking patients whether they have daily leakage vs whether they ever have had leakage or have had leakage in the past month will elicit different responses that a clinician may interpret differently. It is important to remember that leakage is not a physiologic event that a healthy adult should have at any time, even once a month or once a year. Not having the capacity to control bowel evacuation or having leakage unaware of its occurrence signals an abnormality.

What are notable risk factors for fecal incontinence?

In women, pregnancy can be a risk factor, particularly if giving birth involves pelvic tissue damage, such as injury inflicted by forceps use or the unfortunate occurrence of a significant tear. Neurologic or back injuries are other common risk factors. Also, chronic diarrhea can progress to fecal incontinence owing to severe irritation of the rectum or irritants in stool. Further, any condition that changes the ability of rectal capacity can result in fecal incontinence. These circumstances can include surgery or radiation to the rectal area.

Hear from a patient and learn more about Rao's research using magnetic stimulation to treat fecal incontinence.

What treatment modalities are currently available?

Simple, conservative treatment consists of educating patients about fecal incontinence and instructing them to avoid precipitating events. For example, although many people love to have a meal followed by a cup of coffee and a walk, such a sequence of activities is ill-advised for an incontinent patient: the meal provokes a gastric-colonic response, coffee is a powerful colonic stimulant, and exercise also stimulates motility. This triad creates the perfect storm for a stool leakage or accident while the patient is out on the after-dinner walk.

Antidiarrheal therapies can be very effective but only in approximately 15% to 20% of patients. Another treatment is biofeedback, which can correct muscle weakness using behavioral techniques. Biofeedback provides resolution in approximately 50% to 70% of patients.

The traditional model of office-based biofeedback requires that the patient make 6 or even up to 10 visits to a specialty clinic. This may mean that some patients must drive very long distances to an appropriate care facility that is staffed with trained personnel or physical therapists. This scenario presents a significant challenge for many patients, which is increasingly being recognized by health care professionals and researchers.

Good devices for home-based biofeedback have been scarce; however, such a device was recently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. The research center at Augusta University has tested it in a clinical trial setting and found it to be quite effective as a home biofeedback treatment.

Dextranomer is another treatment modality. It involves injection of small beads of dextran polymers into the anorectal region. The beads form a protective cuff or a buffer to stop stool leakage.

Another treatment modality is sacral nerve stimulation using the Medtronic InterStim system. The patient is outfitted with a pacemaker-like device with wires that continuously stimulate the sacral nerves that control stool events.

In the case of a torn muscle, suturing the torn ends to reduce the size of the anorectal opening is usually useful for women postpartum, although the effect may not be sustained in the long term.

What emerging treatments and research should clinicians be aware of?

One emerging treatment developed at Augusta University’s Clinical Research Center is called translumbosacral neuromodulation therapy (TNT). TNT is similar to TAMS and involves the fecal delivery of magnetic energy through an insulated coil to the lumbosacral nerves that regulate anorectal function. The pulses generated are of the same strength as those of magnetic resonance imaging. The team at Augusta University’s research center has shown that TNT mechanistically improves nerve function and substantively improves stool leakage. A sham-controlled study and long-term study are currently underway at Augusta University and Harvard University’s Massachusetts General Hospital. These studies are being sponsored by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

A multicenter study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health that the team at Augusta University also is involved with is the FIT (Fecal Incontinence Treatment) trial. This randomized study compares biofeedback with dextranomer injection.

Also, as mentioned, tools are becoming available for home biofeedback that should allow many more affected patients to receive treatment because they can do so in the comfort of their own home. The research center at Augusta University is working on a novel home biofeedback protocol for the treatment of constipation and fecal incontinence.

Thus, novel noninvasive tools are emerging for fecal incontinence. The repertoire of current and emerging tools holds the promise of improved outcomes for patients with fecal incontinence.

Rao is also the founder of the Augusta University Digestive Health Center. He is available to speak to media regarding any aspect of digestive health -- simply click on his icon now to arrange an interview today.

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  • Satish Rao, MD
    Satish Rao, MD Digestive Health Expert

    Dr. Satish Rao, a seasoned gastroenterologist, is an expert in digestive health, particularly the brain-gut connection.

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