Tightening Your Anal Sphincter

Learning to strengthen your sphincter can help incontinence

Women sitting on chair, eyes closed
Kegel exercises. Image Source / Getty Images

Not unlike your thighs or biceps, your anal sphincter is composed of thick bands of muscle. The sphincter has two parts including an internal and external band of muscle. Learning how to exercise and strengthen this muscle may help you ward off incontinence in the future. 

The Internal Anal Sphincter

The internal anal sphincter is what we call an involuntary muscle, which means you cannot control it. Similar to your beating heart and your diaphragm, this muscle does its job every second of the day without you having to think about its function. The internal sphincter is programmed to stay shut, which is why most adults do not leak stool while they sleep. However, you can control your external sphincter muscles, which can help you maintain control of your bowels.

The Pelvic Floor Musculature

The organs in your lower pelvis, such as your bladder and colon, are supported by a large group of muscles called the pelvic floor muscles. In conjunction with your anal sphincter, these muscles help you stop embarrassing gas and stool leaks. These are the muscles that you squeeze tightly when you feel a bout of diarrhea coming on and no restroom is in sight. Likewise, these muscles also help you control urine flow and flatulence (gas).

Unable to Control Bowel or Bladder

As we age, fecal and bladder incontinence can occur due to loss of muscle tone in the pelvic floor. It might begin as a little urine or stool leakage with sneezing or standing quickly, but over time it can progress to the inability to control your bladder or bowels completely. Other factors leading to fecal incontinence include:

  • Vaginal childbirth
  • Chronic constipation 
  • Chronic urine infections (in the elderly population)
  • Neurological issues (such as a spinal cord injury)

Check With Your Doctor

New cases of incontinence should be reported to your doctor. There are many treatable diagnoses that can lead to fecal incontinence. In those instances, simply tightening the pelvic floor muscles with exercise would not only be ineffective, you might be inadvertently delaying necessary treatment.

Exercising the Muscles

In the absence of any treatable disease or functional problems, you can work to tighten the sphincter and pelvic floor muscles in the privacy of your own home with just a few minutes of exercise daily. The Kegel exercise—consciously tightening your pelvic floor muscles—has been around for decades and is a very simple procedure. 

If you've stopped your urine flow midstream or consciously held in gas then you have already done a Kegel. The key to Kegel exercises is knowing which muscles to contract—it's the same muscle group you use to stop your urine flow. Men might feel the muscles differently than women—most men report feeling a tightness around the anus whereas many women feel the pull closer to the vagina. 

Although you can practice your Kegels standing or lying down, if you're a beginner it may be helpful to try the exercise while seated in a firm chair. Make sure to relax your abdomen and buttocks, as you don't want to exercise those muscle groups. Consciously squeeze your anus and pelvic floor muscles—as if you were trying to stop urinating midstream—and hold for five to ten seconds. It might help to visualize that these muscles are an elevator and as you contract (squeeze) them, the elevator slowly rises to the top. As you gently release the tension on your muscles imagine the elevator returning to ground level. It is recommended to repeat this exercise at least five times, which equates to one set of Kegels. Try to complete at least two sets a day routinely. No one has to know that you're exercising your pelvic floor—you can do Kegels sitting at your desk or sitting at a stoplight.

Try to Remain Patient

If you're doing the exercise correctly, you should actually feel the pelvic floor muscles lifting. It may be difficult to contract these muscles for a full ten seconds, but as your muscle tone improves it will become easier. A word of warning: Don't over do it. In this case, more is not better and you can actually fatigue these muscles and cause a little bit of temporary incontinence. If you stick with it and repeat the exercise a few times daily, you should have improvement in just a few months. 

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