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When you eat food, it breaks down in your stomach and passes through your intestines. This process is known as digestion. The walls of your intestines absorb nutrients from the food. What remains as waste passes along to your colon and rectum.

At times, things may go wrong in this process, and the waste becomes stuck in the colon. This is known as fecal impaction of the colon.

When you have an impacted colon, your feces become dry and won’t budge, making it impossible to excrete them from your body. Impacted feces block the way for new waste to leave the body, causing it to back up.

All symptoms of fecal impaction can lead to serious issues and warrant prompt medical attention. They can include:

Severe symptoms include:

Signs of an impacted bowel

The most obvious sign of an impacted bowel is the inability to pass stool. You may also start to feel abdominal discomfort and bloating.

The primary cause of fecal impaction of the colon is constipation, which is difficulty in passing stool or the infrequent passing of stool.

When constipation prevents stool from passing through the intestinal system, the stool can become dry and hard and lodge in the colon.

Constipation is painful, and you can often feel bloated and uncomfortably full. You may also feel the need to go to the bathroom without being able to.

Once fecal impaction occurs, your colon won’t be able to remove the feces from the body using its typical contraction process.

Constipation is often the result of:

An impacted bowel can also happen as a result of other causes. For example, if you already have a problem with your lower gastrointestinal tract, you can sometimes experience bowel impaction after a barium enema.

This test involves inserting a dye into your rectum and then taking an X-ray of the colon and rectum. The barium can harden after the test and cause impaction.

If you think you have fecal impaction or if you have persistent symptoms of constipation that aren’t getting better, see your doctor immediately. They will perform a physical exam, including an abdomen examination, to confirm the diagnosis.

They’ll press down on your abdomen to feel for any masses or hardened areas, which can help them locate the affected parts of your digestive system.

After this, your doctor will likely administer a digital rectal exam to check for fecal impaction. In this test, your doctor puts on a glove, lubricates one of their fingers, and inserts it into your rectum. This procedure doesn’t usually cause pain, but you may feel some discomfort.

If your doctor suspects impaction after performing the exams, they may order an abdomen X-ray. Other possible procedures are an abdominal ultrasound or a viewing of the colon using a tiny microscope called a sigmoidoscope.

A barium enema can also highlight the problem areas.

There are several potential treatment options a doctor may choose from. They include the following.

Enema

Doctors often use an enema as the first line of treatment to remove the feces. An enema is a small, fluid-filled bottle with a nozzle attached. The nozzle inserts into the rectum. Your doctor squeezes the bottle, releasing the liquid into the rectum and colon. This lubricates the colon and moistens the feces, making it easier to dislodge.

Manual removal

If an enema doesn’t unblock the feces from your colon, your doctor may try to remove the feces manually. To do this, they’ll insert their gloved finger into your rectum and pick apart the feces to remove the blockage. In some cases, they may use suction devices to help.

Laxatives

A doctor may recommend laxatives if an enema and manual removal do not work. They cause the colon to create more water, softening the impacted stool and making it easier to remove.

Suppositories

Like laxatives, suppositories can help draw moisture into the colon, softening the stool.

Water irrigation

Water irrigation involves pushing a small hose up through the rectum and into the colon. The hose connects to a machine that emits water through the tube. After the irrigation, your doctor will massage your abdomen, moving the waste out of your rectum through another tube.

Complications of fecal impaction of the colon can include:

  • fecal incontinence
  • rectal discomfort
  • urinary incontinence
  • stercoral perforation

It’s important to pay attention to your bowel and visit a doctor if you suspect any problems.

One way to prevent 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. Try these tips:

  • Drink plenty of water every day to prevent dehydration.
  • Drink other fluids, such as prune juice, coffee, and tea, that act as natural laxatives.
  • Eat foods that are high in fiber, such as whole wheat, 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 well.

The following sections answer your questions about an impacted bowel.

How do you soften an impacted stool quickly?

To soften impacted stool quickly, you would most likely need to take an oral laxative, use an anal suppository, or do water irrigation.

How long does it take to clear fecal impaction?

How long it takes to clear fecal impaction depends on the treatment. An enema should release the stool within about an hour. If the cause is constipation, a suppository may be able to help you release the fecal obstruction within a few minutes. However, you may also need to take a laxative, which can take longer to work. Other impactions may require more complex treatment.

Can you still poop with impacted feces?

You may still be able to pass stool if it has not fully blocked the rectum. The impact can sometimes lead to fluid leakage around the stool. Passing stool may be painful or uncomfortable.

An impacted bowel can have serious health complications if left untreated. Treatment is typically minimally invasive and involves softening and removing the hardened stool from the colon.

Early signs can include an inability to pass stool, abdominal pain, and bloating. If you experience these symptoms, you should consider seeing a doctor for treatment.