An anorectal fistula is a tubelike tract with one opening in the anal canal and the other usually in the perianal skin. Symptoms are discharge and sometimes pain. Diagnosis is by examination and sigmoidoscopy. Treatment often requires surgery.
Fistulas arise spontaneously or occur secondary to drainage of a perirectal abscess. Predisposing causes include Crohn's disease and TB. Most fistulas originate in the anorectal crypts; others may result from diverticulitis, tumors, or trauma. Fistulas in infants are congenital and are more common among boys. Rectovaginal fistulas may be secondary to Crohn's disease, obstetric injuries, radiation therapy, or cancer.
Symptoms and Signs
A history of recurrent abscess followed by intermittent or constant discharge is usual. Discharge material is purulent, serosanguineous, or both. Pain may be present if there is infection. On inspection, one or more secondary openings can be seen. A cordlike tract can often be palpated. A probe inserted into the tract can determine the depth and direction and often the primary opening.
Diagnosis is by examination. Sigmoidoscopy should follow if there is suspicion of Crohn's disease. Hidradenitis suppurativa, pilonidal sinus, dermal suppurative sinuses, and urethroperineal fistulas must be differentiated from cryptogenic fistulas.
In the past, the only effective treatment was surgery, in which the primary opening and the entire tract are unroofed and converted into a “ditch.” Partial division of the sphincters may be necessary. Some degree of incontinence may occur if a considerable portion of the sphincteric ring is divided. Alternatives to conventional surgery include advancement flaps, biologic plugs, and fibrin glue instillations into the fistulous tract. More recently, the ligation of intersphincteric fistula tract (LIFT) procedure, where the fistula tract is divided between the sphincter muscles, has gained acceptance as an alternative more likely to preserve continence.
If diarrhea or Crohn's disease is present, fistulotomy is inadvisable because of delayed wound healing. For patients with Crohn's disease, metronidazole, other appropriate antibiotics, and suppressive therapies can be given (see Treatment). Infliximab is effective in closing anal fistulas caused by Crohn's disease.
Last full review/revision July 2012 by Parswa Ansari, MD
Content last modified October 2013