What is a fecal impaction and is it dangerous?
So what is a fecal impaction? Is it something to worry about, and can it be dangerous? A fecal impaction can happen when waste in the colon becomes dry and hard and is unable to be expelled from the body with a normal bowel movement. This can happen due to a number of factors including overuse of laxatives, not having normal bowel movements and in some cases from the use of opioid pain medications.
Fecal impaction happens when a large mass of stool becomes lodged in the colon and you are unable to pass it. The blocked colon builds up more stool behind the mass because you are unable to pass the hard, dry stool. A fecal impaction can be dangerous or even life-threatening if left untreated. If you suspect you have a fecal impaction you should see your doctor without delay.
What causes fecal impaction?
Fecal impaction happens to the elderly in most cases. There are a number of reasons this may happen, including:
- Chronic Constipation- Chronic constipation is a leading cause of fecal impaction. Constipation is the inability to have a regular bowel movement. Many people with chronic constipation turn to laxative products to help them to have a bowel movement. The overuse of laxatives can lead to a further decline in the natural functioning of the colon. Instead of turning to harsh laxatives, a better option is to stay well hydrated and eat a diet high in fiber. There are also fiber supplements for those who have a hard time getting enough fiber in their diets.
- Opioid Pain Medications- Some pain medications containing opioids can slow down the natural contractions that happen in the digestive system and lead to an impaction.
- Not Getting Enough Exercise- If you are not active you are more prone to develop an impaction than those people who are up and moving around.
- Holding Your Urge To Go- If you tend to not want to go to the bathroom in strange places or at work due to embarrassment, you may cause an impaction. Holding your urge to go can lead to your body to not give the signal to go, leading to chronic constipation or even a fecal impaction over time.
Fecal Impaction Symptoms
The symptoms of a fecal impaction may include:
- Diarrhea that is very loose and watery. This may leak out when you cough or laugh.
- Stomach or back pain
- Nausea or vomiting of unknown origin
- Dehydration. Dehydration may also lead to little or no urination.
- Fast heart rate or shortness of breath
- Fainting or confusion
If you have these symptoms you should call your doctor or call 911. Especially troubling is a fast heart rate or shortness of breath. These symptoms may signal a medical emergency. Always seek medical help if you experience these symptoms.
How Does Your Doctor Test For Fecal Impaction?
Your doctor will ask you a series of questions and look at your medical history. They may order tests including:
- The simplest test is for your doctor to do a digital exam where they will insert a gloved finger into your rectum to feel for a fecal impaction.
- Your doctor may order x-rays of the chest and abdomen. They may be able to spot an impaction on the x-ray.
- Sigmoidoscope exam. Your doctor may use a fiberoptic scope with a light to look into your colon for an impaction.
- Barium enema. Sometimes the doctor will order a barium enema so he can further see exactly where the impaction is occurring.
If it is found that you have a fecal impaction what are the treatment options?
- Laxatives or a medicated suppository. This is usually the first method attempted to clear a fecal impaction.
- Manual Removal- Your doctor may have to insert a gloved finger into your rectum and manually remove the blockage if it won’t pass.
- Enema– An enema may be used to help soften the impaction and help you pass it. An enema may use plain water or substances mixed with water to help soften the stool.
If you suspect you may be suffering from a fecal impaction due to chronic constipation, you may try an over the counter laxative or a home enema to see if you can loosen the stool enough to pass. If that doesn’t work, you should seek medical advice. You need to seek medical attention immediately if you have any of the symptoms mentioned above. These symptoms can be life-threatening.