Impacted Bowel: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

When it comes to treating an impacted bowel, medical help is the best remedy. But you can take measures to protect yourself from future episodes.

impacted bowel

Hard, dry stool that won't pass can result in painful impacted bowel.

© Mathias Rosenthal | Dreamstime.com

An impacted bowel is one of the more unpleasant digestive issues you can experience. Bowel obstruction symptoms occur when a mass of dry, hard stool will not pass out of the colon or rectum. Bowel impaction can become a serious issue if not treated, and in extreme cases may even result in death. However, treatment is often successful once the bowel obstruction problem and its severity have been identified. (See also our post Remedies for Constipation—Without Drugs.)

Symptoms of Impacted Bowel

The most common (and obvious) symptom of an impacted bowel: Being unable to have a bowel movement no matter how hard you try, with accompanying pain in the abdomen or back. Other symptoms include:

More serious symptoms that could require immediate medical attention include:

  • Breathing problems
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Fever
  • Incontinence (uncontrollable urination)
  • Confusion
  • Agitation
  • Dizziness

Impacted Bowel Causes

One of the most common causes of an impacted bowel is an overuse of laxatives. Higher doses and repeated use can make the colon less able to naturally respond to the body’s need to have a bowel movement.

When taking laxatives on a regular basis, your body may adjust itself and begin to depend on these laxatives in order to make a bowel movement. Instead of using laxatives regularly, be sure to eat a diet high in fiber. How much fiber? Between 20 and 30 grams of fiber per day is required to encourage proper bowel function. Unfortunately, most American diets contain only half of that amount, which can result in bowel impaction.

In certain cases, an impacted bowel or constipation may result from a more serious condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulitis, and even colon cancer. It’s important to check with your doctor if you are suffering from what you believe to be an impacted bowel.

Other causes include:

  • Constipation that goes untreated.
  • Little or no physical activity over a long period.
  • Diet changes that may include less fiber.
  • Opioid pain medicines.
  • Inadequate fluid intake.
  • Travel and schedule changes.
  • Pain or discomfort around the anus.
  • Ignoring the initial urge to defecate.

Diagnosis

If you have symptoms of chronic constipation or an impacted bowel, see your doctor. He or she may perform one or more tests to determine the severity of your fecal obstruction symptoms. For example:

  • X-rays of the abdomen.
  • Digital rectal exam (DRE). The doctor or nurse inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the lower part of the rectum to feel for a fecal impaction, lumps, or anything else that seems unusual.
  • Sigmoidoscopy. A thin, lighted tube is inserted through the anus and rectum and into the lower part of the colon to look for fecal impaction and abnormal areas.

How to Treat an Impacted Bowel and Constipation

The first treatment for bowel impaction may be to soften the stool with an enema so it can be removed or passed out of the body. In most cases, your physician may be able to manually disimpact the stool. This process, according to an article in Clinics in Colon and Rectal Surgery, involves inserting a lubricated, gloved index finger in the rectum to gently soften and break up the stool. The physician’s finger, bent slightly, can then remove and extract the stool. This process is repeated until the rectum is cleared of any stool impaction.

An impacted bowel also can be removed through enemas and suppositories prescribed by your doctor. Enema solutions usually contain water and some sort of osmotic agent that act to soften the impacted stool. The additional volume of liquid also promotes the stool to evacuate the body.

When receiving an enema, patients are placed in the Sims’ position and the enema is passed through a rubber catheter into the patient’s anus. The pressure and volume of enema administration is determined by the size of the patient and how impacted the stool is in the body. After the enema is administered, patients usually wait a few minutes for the solution to mix and soften the stool. A massage of the lower abdomen can help the process until the patient voluntarily releases the impacted stool and solution. The process can be repeated until the symptoms are clear. Too many enemas, however, can damage your intestine.

Preventing Impacted Stool

The best way to avoid impacted bowel issues is to make sure you don’t become constipated, taking these steps:

  • Drink plenty of liquids daily to reduce your risk of dehydration.
  • Consume more high-fiber foods (such as whole-wheat bread, oats, and vegetables) to promote regular bowel movements.
  • Lower your intake of high-sugar foods.
  • Exercise; a regular routine can help your digestive system run smoothly.

Originally posted in 2016, this post is regularly updated.

As a service to our readers, University Health News offers a vast archive of free digital content. Please note the date published or last update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

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Matthew Solan

Matthew Solan has served as executive editor of Harvard Men's Health Watch since 2016. He was previously executive editor for UCLA Health's Healthy Years and was a regular contributor to … Read More

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  • Usually about 3 to 4 times a week I have a large dry stool, I have gas almost every day my dry stool spears to be made up of small marble size stool compacted in one large one usually about the size of a tennis ball.

  • If you have a bidet, you can squirt it up your rectum and flush everything out of your descending colon; if not, you can use your shower hose in the shower, to do the same, and flush the stool down the drain.

  • 3-4 days ago I had a digital removal of impact’d stool in the ER . I am wonder how long it will be before I experience a full bowel movement. Nothing in release instructions discussed this. I have heard from others it could be anywhere from 48-hours to a week. No help searching Google, either.

  • My colon has been remove and i think i am impacted, it has happen once before and had to be put to sleep to have doctor remove it. Have very bad pain at times. What can I do? Thank you

  • Parasites can cause this condition though the medical profession in the USA denies their presence. They mass sometimes and prevent defecation, as well as stimulating food choices that favor their own health over that of their human host. Cleansing the worms, amoebas, and flukes that people have acquired will ultimately yield better bowel function than use of laxatives, probiotics, fiber concoctions, or medical interventions.

  • I have had emphysema for about five years. I was on oxygen during the day but not at night. I could go about two hours without the oxygen, and then I need it. I had a converter in the house and oxygen tanks for when I go shopping, etc. I am 64 years old and in relatively good health. The doctor said it was caused by a combination of smoking, dust here in Vegas, and 30 years of smog in California. I believed I will always need the oxygen to breathe. I quit smoking 15 years ago. But the damage has been done. January 2017 my pulmonologist and I decided to go with natural treatment and was introduced to Green House Herbal Clinic natural organic Emphysema Herbal formula, i had a total decline of symptoms with this Emphysema Herbal formula treatment. The infections, shortness of breath, fatigue, dry cough and other symptoms has subsided. Visit Green House Herbal Clinic official website I have had great improvement with my over all respiration with this product and i breath very much easier, i can never be thankful enough to nature

  • Contact a Dr. ASP OR YOU WILL WISH YOU DID. I HAVE HAD 3 SELF TREATED EPISODES LASTING ABOUT 12 HRS BEFORE RELIEF.

  • I am a 50 years old female diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis 2 years ago but have had symptoms for at least 20 years. I was taking methotrexate and Cymbalta, as well as infusions of Remicade, nothing worked for me. All my pain was from my waist down and certainly not something I can stand. The only treatment that has been successful has been the taking of RA herbal remedy i purchased from Best Health herbal centre. I now wake up every morning without pain. I have been pain-free period for more than 4 months. I have regular blood tests and do not experience any of the side effects from taking the herbal remedy. Thank God this works for me. I feel great!.

  • My son 13yrs been diagnosed with faecal impacting after almost one year of abdominal pain. Enemas have been applied and stool softening drugs too. But it has recorded after two months of relief. The pain is not subsiding even after administration of enemas by doctor. Kindly advise .He is not able to attend school and am anxious

  • If the er said i was backed up so far that my colon had no elasticity and i did an enima. Squirted most of the night does that mean all that poop is out? Cuz i feel worse. Like its stretching my side. Lower right side.

  • My husband have trouble poop.Will go long time then go but will be dry and hard.He taking different counter medicines, to try poop. Have told many doctors they do nothing.This what happened to him.Feel like vomiting, stomach hurt right after he eats stomach really hurting bad. Feel like he got to poop. But just little. Please tell me what we can do.

  • I have not had a bm in 3 week.I have loss weight and having a hard time hearther.I feel like the in side of my body it feel like it. 300%.what can I do.

  • One of the BEST things you can use is powdered magnesium. I buy a bottle called CALM. I think it’s a combination of magnesium and calcium. It’s a miracle and I use to not have a bowel movement for over a month. I wanted to die! Another thing I found recently is celery juice!! No joke. Just drinking a glass of celery juice make me go within a couple hours. But you have to have a juicer and buy a lot of celery.

  • Sometimes I have hard stool, also. It is not hard to dislodge impacted stool in the rectum. I have vaseline by my toilet and will do the same thing physician does, lubricate the middle finger, and the anus opening, insert finger gently sideways so it does not irritate too much, and reach for the stool. It can be worked out without too much trouble, and at time, will precipitate more stool from higher up to release. Also, youcan buy an enema bulb from drugstore and fill with water, bend over with knees on floor, lubricate tip and anus with vaseline, insert, and this will also precipipate stool eliminating. BM stimulators I have found useful are a cup of orange juice or maybe coffee, walking if I sit and can’t go, and just waiting a little longer. I never go beyond the second day with a BM using these techniques.

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