Search Menu
Search entire library by keyword
OR
Choose by letter to browse topics
A B C D E F G H I J K LM N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
(A-Z listing includes diseases, conditions, tests and procedures)
 

Bladder and Bowel Dysfunction

Bladder and Bowel Dysfunction: What You Need to Know

  • Issues with urinating or passing stools are referred to as bladder and bowel dysfunction.

  • Bladder and bowel problems often originate with nerve or muscle dysfunction, as these systems control the flow of urine and the release of stool.

  • Other health issues may cause bladder and/or bowel dysfunction, including medicinal side effects, stress, neurologic diseases, diabetes, hemorrhoids and pelvic floor disorders.

  • Therapy and management for these conditions can range from dietary changes and exercise to electrical stimulation and surgery depending on individual diagnosis.

Bladder and bowel dysfunction refer to problems with urinating and passing stools. These include unwanted passage of urine or stool, called urinary or fecal incontinence. These disorders also include problems with voluntary urination or passing bowel movements.

If you have these types of bladder and bowel problems, you may feel embarrassed at the thought of bringing them up with your doctor or other health care provider. These conditions can be physically and emotionally difficult to deal with, but you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable about talking to your health care provider. They are used to dealing with these issues and can help you manage the problem.

Causes of bladder and bowel dysfunction

For the bladder and bowel to function correctly, certain nerves in your body need to control the right muscles, telling them when to contract and when to release to allow urine and feces to be eliminated when you want them to.

This happens when the nerves in the spinal cord send messages from the brain to the bladder and sphincter muscles to control the flow of urine. The muscles within the rectum and anus help control your bowels, and sphincter muscles control or release stool. Therefore, problems with bladder and bowel function may result from problems with nerve or muscle function. There can be other causes as well.

Urinary problems

Illustration of a male and female urinary tract
Bladder and urethra of a male (left) and female (right)

A number of conditions may affect the nerves and muscles that control the bladder and bowel, resulting in dysfunction and possible incontinence.

For the bladder, these conditions include:

  • Damage to the nervous system from disease or injury

  • Poor health

  • Vaginal childbirth

  • Overactive bladder: As the name suggests, you may have to go much more frequently than you would like. This can include an urgent need to urinate or having to urinate up to eight times or more a day and twice at night.

  • Difficulty controlling sphincter muscles: If the nerves or muscles that hold urine in the bladder are weakened or injured, they may not cooperate when you want to tighten or release them to pass urine.

  • Holding urine in too long (urine retention): Sometimes nerve damage means that the bladder muscles don’t get the chemical message that it’s time for you to go. The bladder muscles may fail to contract effectively, or there may be poor coordination between muscles of the bladder and sphincter. Urine retention can also occur if there is a blockage to urine flow, such as with excessive scarring after urethral surgery.

Bowel problems

The digestive tract
The Digestive Tract. Click to Enlarge

Fecal incontinence means you may not make it to the bathroom when you have a bowel movement, or you may “leak” stool material.

Conditions that raise the risk for fecal incontinence include:

  • Diarrhea

  • Constipation

  • Damage to the nervous system from disease or injury

  • Poor health

  • Vaginal childbirth, especially with a tear that damages the anal canal

  • Rectal prolapse (when the rectum protrudes into the anus)

  • Rectocele (when the rectum bulges into the vagina): May contribute to problems with bowel emptying, and in some cases may also impact bowel control.

Other conditions

These are other health issues that may contribute to bladder and/or bowel dysfunction:

  • Medication side effects

  • Stress

  • Neurologic diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease or stroke

  • Diabetes

  • Infections, including spinal cord or brain infections

  • Hemorrhoids

  • Problems with the pelvic floor muscles

  • Problems affecting the nerves that control the urinary or digestive tract

  • Injury or damage to the rectum caused by surgery or by conditions, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis

Managing bladder and bowel dysfunction

Depending on the nature of your problem and symptoms, your health care provider will work with you to create a plan of action. Here are some common treatments:

  • Changing your diet. Gradually increasing your fiber intake can help manage the diarrhea and constipation that can lead to fecal incontinence. Drinking plenty of fluids can also ease constipation. Some individuals may be able to identify dietary triggers for their bladder dysfunction. Common triggers may include coffee and alcohol. Excessive fluid intake may worsen problems with bladder control.

  • Exercising. Kegel exercises can strengthen the sphincter muscles and pelvic floor. This can provide better control and ease bladder and bowel dysfunction. Ask your doctor whether they might help in your case and, if so, how to do them.

  • Taking medications. Some medications, including fiber supplements, can help control bowel dysfunction, and antidiarrheal medications can help manage diarrhea. Prescription medications are also available to help bladder muscles relax to promote better bladder control.

  • Training. Programs that “train” the bowels and bladder can give you better control and manage dysfunction. This includes setting a regular schedule for using the toilet and attempting to urinate or have bowel movements at the same time each day.

  • Undergoing electrical stimulation. In appropriate cases, this therapy can stimulate damaged nerves, promote better muscle control, and help you control urine and feces.

  • Undergoing surgery. In rare cases, you may need surgery to repair damage to the muscles or nerves that are causing bladder or bowel dysfunction.

You don’t have to suffer in silence. Finding the right therapy and management techniques can help you overcome bladder or bowel problems and avoid embarrassing incidents.

Find a physician at another Johns Hopkins Member Hospital:

Connect with a Treatment Center

Find Additional Treatment Centers at: