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About your bowel

About one in 20 people experience poor bowel control. It's often not talked about, but both men and women can have poor bowel control. It's more common as you get older, but young people can also have poor bowel control. Often, people with poor bowel control also have poor bladder control and may leak urine.

How the bowel works

The bowel, a tube-like organ, is part of the alimentary canal (digestive tract). It starts at the stomach and goes through to the anus (back passage). It’s actually the small and large intestine, so there are two bowels – it’s the large bowel that empties into the toilet. This waste matter is called faeces, bowel motions, stools or ‘poo’.

Digestion of food occurs in the stomach and small bowel. The term ‘small bowel’ is often used to describe the upper part of the intestine or bowel. The small bowel takes the nourishment your body needs from what you eat and the remaining waste forms faeces.

The term ‘large bowel’ can be used to describe the colon and rectum, located low in the pelvic floor. Faeces enter the large bowel as liquid. The large bowel absorbs water back into the body and the faeces become more solid. When faeces reach the lower part of the large bowel (rectum), you feel fullness or the urge to pass a bowel motion.

What are the signs of a healthy bowel?

Being ‘regular’ is a way of describing good bowel habits or normal bowel function. We often talk about our bowels being regular but this is often misunderstood as meaning that you go to the toilet to pass faeces every day. It’s common for people to empty their bowel once a day, although it’s still normal to be more or less often. Being regular really means that soft yet well-formed bowel motions are easily passed and that this happens anywhere from 1–3 times a day to 3 times a week. The Bristol Stool Chart is an easy way to identify what your faeces should look like.

The bowel usually wants to empty about 30 minutes after a meal (commonly breakfast), but this can vary from person to person.

There’s more to good bowel function than just being regular. For example, you should be able to:

  • hold on for a short time after you feel the first urge to go to the toilet - this allows time to get there and remove clothing without any accidental loss of faeces
  • pass a bowel motion within about a minute of sitting down on the toilet
  • pass a bowel motion easily and without pain - ideally, you shouldn’t be straining on the toilet or struggling to pass a bowel motion which is hard and dry, and
  • completely empty your bowel when you pass a motion - you don’t have to go back to the toilet soon after, to pass more.

People who pass bowel motions at the wrong time or in the wrong place may be experiencing poor bowel control, or faecal incontinence. They may also pass wind when they don't want to.

Poor bowel control is more common than you may think - about one in 20 people experience poor bowel control. It's often not talked about, but both men and women can have poor bowel control. It's more common as you get older, but young people can also have poor bowel control. Sometimes, people with poor bowel control also have poor bladder control and may leak urine.