Causes of Bathroom Accidents

If you have been having bathroom accidents related to your bowels (fecal incontinence), you may find some solace in the fact that you are not alone. Incontinence happens to both men and women and is not a normal part of aging, although your risk of experiencing incontinence does increase as you get older. Gaining knowledge about the possible causes of your incontinence is important to help you find the best treatment for it. Here we will cover the primary reasons why this might be happening to you.

man in distress
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The urgency and rapid speed of bowel movements can overwhelm the ability of the sphincter muscles in the rectum to hold stool in place. People who suffer conditions that cause chronic diarrhea, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease, may experience episodes of incontinence. Inflammatory bowel disease also can cause rectal scarring, which may lead to incontinence.


Although it seems to fly in the face of logic, it is possible to experience soiling when constipated. This happens when watery stool leaks its way around the hard, compacted stool mass. A long history of straining to produce stool (often an end product of chronic constipation), can damage the nerves in the muscles of the rectum, causing weakness and an inability to contain stool.

There are two other conditions that are related to constipation that can cause fecal incontinence:


For women, childbirth is the leading cause of incontinence. It's most likely to occur following a complicated delivery, particularly when forceps are used or an episiotomy is performed. An episiotomy is a procedure in which the healthcare provider cuts the vaginal area to prevent the area from being torn. The risk here is that the sphincter muscles—the muscles at the bottom of the rectum that have the job of containing stool—are damaged in the process. This may prevent them from adequately holding stool, resulting in incontinence. Vaginal childbirth also raises a woman’s risk of experiencing pelvic floor dysfunction, which as you will see below, is also a cause of fecal incontinence.

Pelvic Floor Dysfunction

The term "pelvic floor" refers to a group of muscles in the pelvic region that are involved in the process of having a bowel movement. Dysfunction and nerve damage in the pelvic floor muscles can be the result of pregnancy, vaginal childbirth, and pelvic surgery. Pelvic floor dysfunction causes a general weakness and sagging in the pelvic muscles, diminished ability of the nerves of the rectum to sense the presence of stool, and impairment in the movement of the muscles involved in the process of defecation—all of which can lead to incontinence.

Rectal Surgery

Any type of rectal surgery, whether it be for colon cancer or hemorrhoids, raises your risk for experiencing incontinence. In fact, anal surgery is the leading cause of incontinence in men. Surgery, like childbirth, can result in muscle and nerve damage that then interferes with the normal process of defecation. Surgery also presents the risk of scarring of the rectal walls, causing them to lose elasticity. The resulting inability of the rectum to stretch can result in difficulty containing stool and therefore incontinence occurs.

Visible Structural Problems

As you can see, if a condition exists which interferes with the normal functioning of the anal sphincter muscles, a bathroom accident can occur. Sometimes the cause is something that your healthcare provider can readily see during a physical examination:

  • Severe hemorrhoids
  • Rectal prolapse
  • Rectocele (the rectum bulges into the vagina)

Cancer Radiation Treatment

Similar to rectal surgery, radiation treatment can result in damage and scarring of the rectal walls leading to incontinence.

Neurological Conditions

Diseases and conditions that damage nerve tissue can also cause incontinence, particularly if they affect the nerves that control defecation. These conditions include multiple sclerosis, stroke, spinal cord injuries, and diabetes.

What to Do If You Are Having Bathroom Accidents

The most important thing to do is to tell your healthcare provider. Do not let shame get in the way! This is not that uncommon a problem and your practitioner will know just what to do. Your healthcare provider will work to pinpoint the problem behind your accidents and help you to come up with a treatment plan.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. University of Colorado Urogynecology. Incontinence after childbirth.

  2. Cleveland Clinic. Pelvic floor dysfunction.

Additional Reading
  • National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases Website."Fecal Incontinence"

By Barbara Bolen, PhD
Barbara Bolen, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and health coach. She has written multiple books focused on living with irritable bowel syndrome.