Sometimes you’ll experience times when you need to hold in a bowel movement, like when:

  • There’s no toilet nearby.
  • Your job — such as nursing or teaching — offers limited break opportunities.
  • There’s a long line to access the restroom.
  • You’re uncomfortable with the sanitary conditions of the available toilet.
  • You don’t want to use a toilet in a public setting.

It’s OK to hold in your poop until you can go once in a while, but regularly holding in your poop can lead to complications.

Read on to learn about the muscles that hold in your poop, what can happen when you hold it in too often, and more.

Your pelvic floor muscles keep your organs in place. They separate your pelvic cavity from your perineum. That’s the area between your genitals and anus.

The major muscle of your pelvic floor is the levator ani muscle. It’s made up of the:

  • puborectalis
  • pubococcygeus
  • iliococcygeus

Puborectalis muscle

The puborectalis muscle is located at the small end of the funnel made by the levator ani. This U-shaped muscle supports the anal canal. It also creates an angle at the anorectal junction. This is between the rectum and the anal canal.

Your puborectalis muscles plays an important role in helping expel and retain poop.

When it contracts, it pulls the rectum tight, like a shut-off valve, restricting flow. When it’s relaxed to pass a bowel movement, the angle of fecal flow is straighter.

External anal sphincter

Circling the outside wall of your anal canal and anal opening is a layer of voluntary muscle known as your external sphincter. At will, you can cause it to contract (close) and expand (open) to either hold in poop or have a bowel movement.

If you’re not near a bathroom and have to go poop, you can try manipulating these muscles to hold it in until you can go:

  • Clench your butt cheeks together. This may help keep your rectum muscles tense.
  • Avoid squatting. Try standing or lying down instead. These aren’t natural positions to have a bowel movement and may “trick” your body into not going poop.

When your rectum, a tube-shaped organ at the end of your colon, fills with poop, it stretches. You’ll feel this as an urge to have a bowel movement. To hold it in, the muscles around the rectum will tighten.

Regularly ignoring this urge to poop can lead to constipation. Constipation is defined as fewer than three bowel movements per week. You may also strain when you do have a bowel movement and pass hard, dry stools.

Everyone’s poop schedule is different. For some, having a bowel movement three times per day is normal. Others may poop just three times per week. That’s normal too.

But how long can you go without pooping? It varies from person to person. However, a 2010 case study describes a 55-year-old woman who went 75 days without a bowel movement.

Perhaps some people have gone longer and it just hasn’t been recorded. Perhaps other people wouldn’t have lasted that long without serious complications.

Whatever the case, it’s not recommended to hold in your poop for long periods of time.

If you continue to eat but don’t poop, fecal impaction may result. This is a large, solid accumulation of feces that gets stuck and is unable to be pushed out.

Another result of not having bowel movements might be a gastrointestinal perforation. This is a hole that develops in the gastrointestinal tract due to the pressure of the excess fecal matter on your intestines.

If this occurs and fecal matter spills into your abdominal cavity, its bacteria can cause severe and even life-threatening symptoms.

A 2015 study found that an increased fecal load in the colon increases bacterial counts and creates long-term inflammation of the inner lining of the colon. This is a risk factor for cancer.

The study also suggests that voluntarily holding in your poop might also be associated with appendicitis and hemorrhoids.

In some cases, you may not be able to hold in your poop. Fecal incontinence is the loss of control of gas or poop to the point it causes distress or discomfort.

People experiencing fecal incontinence are often unable to stop the sudden urge to poop. This can make it difficult to reach the toilet before it’s too late.

Fecal incontinence is typically beyond your ability to control. It’s often a sign that your bowel control system is malfunctioning, or something is structurally interfering with its function.

One or more conditions can cause fecal incontinence, such as:

  • muscle damage to the rectum
  • nerve or muscle damage to the intestines and rectum by chronic constipation
  • nerve damage to the nerves that sense stool in the rectum
  • nerve damage to the nerves that control the anal sphincter
  • rectal prolapse (rectum drops into the anus)
  • rectocele (rectum protrudes through the vagina)
  • hemorrhoids that keep your anus from completely closing

Fecal incontinence is a sign of something serious. If you suspect you have it, reach out to your doctor.

Talking about poop can be embarrassing. But if you’re having trouble controlling the urge to poop, tell your doctor about it. They can diagnose any underlying conditions causing your issues and find the right treatment for you.