PHILADELPHIA — In an era when people talk about just about anything, fecal incontinence is one of the few medical conditions that is so embarrassing, so disturbing, that people don’t even tell their doctors about it.
Sadly, if sufferers talked, they’d find out how common their problem is and learn that new help is available.
In the last two years, two new treatments for the debilitating condition have been approved. They don’t cure everybody, but can offer hope to people who are often so afraid they’ll soil their pants in public that they won’t leave home. Their lives revolve around their unreliable sphincters.
Joshua Bleier, a Pennsylvania Hospital colorectal surgeon, is thrilled to be able to offer something helpful. He has been using a device similar to a heart pacemaker to improve function of pelvic floor muscles.
“I am amazed and so gratified by the fact that these people whose lives have just been hijacked and destroyed by their incontinence … they’re just rescued by this,” he said. “It’s the best feeling in the world.”
Henry Parkman, director of the GI Motility Laboratory at Temple University Hospital, said doctors call fecal incontinence the “silent affliction.” Even when they visit a specialist, patients with it may say they’ve come due to diarrhea. Doctors are learning that they have to ask.
“If you think that there’s embarrassment attached to urinary incontinence, that is just a shadow of the embarrassment surrounding fecal incontinence,” said Nancy Muller, executive director of the National Association for Continence.
The National Institute of Health estimates that 12 million Americans have fecal incontinence. The incidence rises with age and experts estimate that 15 percent of those over 70 suffer from the condition. It’s a key reason many elderly people wind up in nursing homes.
While most of us associate the need for adult diapers with serious illness and dementia, doctors said they treat middle-aged people who are still working and healthy seniors without cognitive problems.