Although you may not talk about it or even think about it much, it’s important to your body and, yes, even your happiness. Bowel function is a source of distress for more than half of people with spinal cord injuries. Are you one of those people? Does it have to be that way? Probably not, prior to leaving hospital you will probably have been given a schedule and procedure to follow, don’t be afraid of discussing the problem with your doctor or spinal unit if it doesn’t seem to be working.

Many spinal cord injury (SCI) survivors were taught early on to combine different techniques for their bowel programs – especially the use of digital stimulation, medications, and/or suppositories. Surveys show that while people do tend to stick with the combination approach, they make changes as well. Why? Researchers don’t know for sure, but it’s likely that some, if not most people make changes because of various complications or problems they’ve had with their bowel programs. The most common problems they seem to report are constipation, incontinence, haemorrhoids, bleeding, and pain.

People with spinal cord injury experience constipation. Why is something like constipation so common among people with spinal cord injury? Because the SCI itself changes how the intestines work. SCI makes your food take longer to travel through your colon. The longer it takes to go through your digestive tract, the more fluid gets absorbed there. This makes a drier stool, which can increase constipation. And, along with working more slowly, your digestive tract just may not empty right or get stopped up.

Incontinence is unplanned bowel movements or bowel accidents. Incontinence and constipation often go together. What do they have in common? Both mean that food is not moving smoothly through the digestive tract. About one-third of SCI survivors complain of problems with incontinence or leakage from their bowels.

Constipation and incontinence can occur at the same time when fluid leaks around stool that is stuck or moving too slowly. And, sometimes what you do to try to relieve constipation – diet changes, laxatives, etc – can lead to more accidents or leaking. So, the message is this: having a bowel accident doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve solved your constipation problem.

Incontinence doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re ill or unhealthy. However, having to deal with bowel accidents – or even just having to worry about the possibility of them – can affect how confidently you can move about in public.