Symptoms and diagnosis

Understanding your condition

A woman’s pelvis contains her bladder, uterus, rectum and vagina. A group of muscles, tissue and ligaments — called the pelvic floor — support these organs.

Damage to the pelvic floor or nerves that connect the pelvic organs to the brain can cause accidental bowel leakage, or fecal incontinence. Women with accidental bowel leakage may experience trouble controlling gas and stool. Some have to rush to the bathroom, while others may have accidents without realizing it. Many women with bowel problems also have bladder problems.

Making a diagnosis

To diagnose accidental bowel leakage, your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, including childbirth history. Your doctor will also do a gentle physical exam. Most women with ABL do not need additional tests.

Treatments and research

A treatment option for every woman

Our care team will work with you to design a treatment plan so you feel comfortable and confident being away from home. At UW Health, we offer surgical and nonsurgical treatment options.

Nonsurgical treatments

Biofeedback helps you re-train the nerves and muscles in the pelvis. It can help you sense when stool arrives in the rectum and can also help with muscle strengthening and coordination.

Your doctor may recommend trying some changes to your diet. Fiber can make stools easier to hold onto. Avoiding common triggers (caffeine, spicy foods, milk products, chocolate, artificial sweeteners) can improve symptoms.

Sometimes over-the-counter or prescription medications can make bowel symptoms better or worse. Your doctor will work with you and your pharmacist to make sure your medications are not making symptoms worse.

Your doctor might recommend physical therapy to help coordinate your pelvic floor muscles, including both relaxation and strengthening exercises, such as Kegel squeezes

Disposable rectal inserts and long-term vaginal inserts may be recommended to help with symptoms of accidental bowel leakage.

Meet our team

A team of women’s health experts

Our team includes many specialists in pelvic health.

Female pelvic medicine
Gastroenterology and hepatology
Colon and rectal surgery

Location

A one-stop approach to women’s health care

Our UW Health’s Women’s Pelvic Wellness Clinic is unique.

Many women with accidental bowel leakage also have other pelvic floor symptoms, such as bladder leakage. We offer a one-stop approach so you can see specialists who approach your conditions from different and complimentary perspectives so that you can get all your evaluation and treatment in one place.

    Patient and support services

    Support for you

    About the UW Health Women’s Pelvic Wellness Clinic
    Heidi Brown, MD, Talks About Accidental Bowel Leakage
    Tackling the Taboo: Let’s Talk About Accidental Bowel Leakage

    Other resources