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What Is a Fecal Impaction?

Laura M. Sands
Updated: Feb 20, 2024

Fecal impaction is characterized by a severe buildup of hardened feces, known as a fecaloma, in the colon or the rectum that will not pass, nor will it allow a normal bowel movement. Although fluids may still pass through the rectum, a fecaloma can result in severe pain as well as cause damage to the rectal tissue. Also known as chronic constipation, bowel obstruction or intestinal obstruction, fecal impaction is a treatable condition.

Fecal impaction commonly occurs as a result of chronic constipation. A fecaloma, or a hardened mass of stool, is usually discovered during a gastroenterology exam. Sudden diarrhea may also occur at the same time as an impaction due to fluids moving around a fecaloma.

Symptoms of fecal impaction include stomach bloating, abdominal pain and discomfort, bloody stools, and pencil-shaped stools. A person may also experience a sudden onset of liquid-like stools. In more severe cases of bowel obstruction, an individual may experience intense abdominal pain with an inability to pass gas or have a bowel movement. Doctors recommend that anyone experiencing these symptoms seek medical attention right away.

Besides chronic constipation, a bowel obstruction may be caused by a variety of other factors including, but not limited to, hemorrhoids, cancer, a poor diet, aging, depression, intentionally avoiding bowel movements, and a general lack of mobility. In some, it is attributed to prescription medications, which may cause chronic constipation. Bowel obstructions commonly occur in patients who are bedridden or who are being treated for another condition or disease, such as cancer or a condition known as volvulus in which the intestines have become abnormally twisted. Another condition, known as intestinal pseudo-obstruction, may mimic the symptoms of impaction even when there is no fecaloma or other physical obstruction in the intestines or the rectum.

Most people use an enema, a stool softener or a laxative to treat a bowel obstruction. The buildup of feces can be so severe and painful, however, that some form of medical intervention may be needed. Changes in dietary habits, such as an increase in high fiber foods, also helps to relieve the symptoms of fecal impaction. In rare, but severe cases, impaction may require surgery in order to remove immobile human feces.

Fecal impaction can be life threatening if not properly treated. When symptoms of this condition are recognized, doctors recommend that it be treated immediately and not allowed to linger with the expectation that it will go away on its own. In order to avoid its onset, experts suggest regular physical activity, a well-balanced diet and adequate hydration.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Laura M. Sands
By Laura M. Sands
Laura Sands, the founder of a publishing company, brings her passion for writing and her expertise in digital publishing to her work. With a background in social sciences and extensive online work experience, she crafts compelling copy and content across various platforms. Her ability to understand and connect with target audiences makes her a skilled contributor to any content creation team.
Discussion Comments
By Phaedrus — On Nov 30, 2014

I had a fecal impaction one time, and I almost had to have surgical intervention. It started with bowel movement problems that just wouldn't go away. I thought I could feel something solid stuck inside my intestines all the time, and at times the cramping was unbearable. I finally went to the emergency room when my wife found me lying on the bathroom floor and I was in extreme pain.

The doctor ordered an MRI, and he discovered the blockage in my large intestine. He was concerned about using strong laxatives or an enema to encourage a natural passing. He thought it might be too large to pass during a regular bowel movement, so he consulted with a GI specialist and a surgeon. They decided I should try to pass the blockage naturally with the help of a glycerine enema first, but they would put me under and extract the mass surgically if I couldn't. Fortunately, the first idea worked.

By mrwormy — On Nov 29, 2014

My elderly mother-in-law just had a bout with fecal impaction. In her case, it was probably caused by severe dehydration and a poor diet. She told us she was feeling really constipated one night, but the next morning she had explosive diarrhea instead. We made an emergency appointment with her regular doctor, who referred her to a gastrointestinal specialist immediately.

The GI doctor ran some tests, including a digital exam, and determined there was a very large and solid mass of feces trapped in her colon. The diarrhea was actually a side effect as the less solid feces tried to work its way around the blockage. The doctor ordered her to drink a lot more water, plus increase the fiber in her diet. I think it took two weeks before she had regular bowel movements again.

Laura M. Sands
Laura M. Sands
Laura Sands, the founder of a publishing company, brings her passion for writing and her expertise in digital publishing...
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