When you eat, food is broken down in your stomach and passed through your intestines in a process called digestion. Nutrients from the food are absorbed through the wall of your intestines, and what remains as waste is passed through to your colon and rectum. At times, things may go wrong in this process and cause the waste to become stuck in the colon. This is called fecal impaction of the colon.
When your colon is impacted, your feces become dry and won’t budge, making it impossible to excrete from your body. Impacted feces block the way for new waste to leave the body, causing it to back up.
How Does It Happen?
The number one cause of fecal impaction of the colon is constipation. Constipation is difficulty passing stool or the infrequent passing of stool. Constipation is often caused by:
- medication side effects
- insufficient nutrient intake
- not consuming enough fiber
- frequent bouts of diarrhea
- problems in the digestive system
- diseases such as diabetes or thyroid diseases
- obstruction in the intestinal tract
- continuous vomiting
- spinal cord injury
Constipation is painful, and sufferers often feel bloated and uncomfortably full. You may also feel the need to go to the bathroom yet are unable to do so. If the stool doesn’t pass through the intestinal system, it could become dry and hard and lodge in the colon (fecal impaction of the colon), making it impossible for it to move through.
Once fecal impaction occurs, the colon won’t be able to remove the feces from the body using its normal contraction process.
Signs and Symptoms of Fecal Impaction
All symptoms of fecal impaction are serious and warrant prompt medical attention. They include:
- leaking stool (liquid)
- abdominal discomfort
- abdominal pain
- feeling the need to push
- unexplained weight loss
- not wanting to eat
Severe symptoms include:
- rapid heart rate
- hyperventilation (rapid breathing)
- becoming easily agitated
- incontinence (passing urine without trying)
Diagnosing the Problem
If you suspect fecal impaction or if you have persistent symptoms of constipation that aren’t getting any better, see your doctor at once. Your doctor will perform a physical exam, which includes an examination of your abdomen to confirm a diagnosis. He or she will press down on your abdomen to feel for any masses or hardened areas. This may give an indication of what part of your digestive system is affected.
After this, your doctor will administer a digital rectal exam (DRE) to check for fecal impaction. In this test, the doctor will put on a glove, lubricate one of his or her fingers, and insert it into the rectum. This procedure causes minimal pain, but you may feel some discomfort.
If impaction is suspected after the DRE and physical examination are performed, your doctor may order an abdominal ultrasound or a viewing of the colon using a tiny microscope (sigmoidoscopy). A barium enema may also be used to highlight the problem areas — this exam involves rectal insertion of a dye, followed by an X-ray of the colon and rectum.
The first method of treatment will most likely be a laxative. There are many over-the-counter laxatives that can help stimulate a clearing of the colon.
If a laxative doesn’t work to unblock the feces from your colon, your doctor will remove the feces manually. To do this, your doctor will insert her or his gloved finger into your rectum and remove the blockage. If your doctor is unable to do so, or he or she is unable to remove the entire blockage, it will be removed by the use of an enema or water irrigation. An enema is a small, fluid-filled bottle with a nozzle attached. The nozzle is inserted into the rectum and the bottle is squeezed to release the liquid into the rectum and colon. This lubricates the colon and moistens the feces, making it easier to dislodge.
Water irrigation involves a small hose being pushed up through the rectum into the colon and connected to a machine that emits water through the tube. Once the process is over, the doctor massages your abdomen to manipulate the waste to leave your rectum through another tube.
How Do I Prevent Fecal Impaction of the Colon?
One way of preventing fecal impaction of the colon is to avoid becoming constipated. Some diseases and certain medications make it impossible to avoid constipation, but making small lifestyle changes can help.
- Drink plenty of water every day to prevent dehydration.
- Eat foods that are high in fiber such as whole wheat, pears, oats, and vegetables.
- Reduce your intake of foods that are high in sugar, which can cause constipation.
- Exercise daily to help keep your digestive system running right.
Complications of fecal impaction of the colon include:
- tears in the colon wall
- anal bleeding
- anal tears
This is why it is important to pay attention to your bowel and visit a doctor if you suspect any problems.