A fistula is an abnormal tunnel between 2 bodily structures. An anal fistula occurs when a tunnel develops between the rectum or anal canal and the skin of the buttocks or other organs.
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Fistulas are caused by damage to local tissue. It is often associated with cysts or infections of anal glands. A fistula can also be caused by sores, ulcers, or other injuries. It may develop at the same time as these injuries or weeks after infections clear.
In some people, anal fistulas occur spontaneously without any specific cause.
Certain conditions increase the risk of developing anal fistulas:
An anal fistula may cause:
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Generally, a diagnosis can be made by examining the skin around the anus for any abnormalities.
To learn more details your doctor may suggest:
If your fistula is caused by an infection or chronic health condition, it may need to be managed before the fistula is repaired. Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you.
A fistula is only cured with surgical repair. Left untreated, some fistulas can cause repeat abscesses or infections. Depending on the severity or location of the fistula, surgery may be straightforward or may need to be done in stages.
Surgical procedures include:
Some procedures may affect muscles that open and close the anus. Depending on your treatment, you may have some degree of fecal incontinence.
Medication may help manage pain and treat any infection. Stool softeners, fiber, or bulk laxatives may also be recommended to decrease strain during bowel movements.
To help reduce your chances of an anal fistula, be sure to manage any health conditions that increase your risk of infections.
American College of Gastroenterology
American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons
Canadian Association of Gastroenterology
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Abscess and fistula expanded information American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons website. Available at: https://www.fascrs.org/patients/disease-condition/abscess-and-fistula-expanded-information. January 9, 2018.
Anal fistula. John Hopkins Medicine website. Available at: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/healthlibrary/conditions/adult/digestive_disorders/anal_fistula_134,173. Accessed January 9, 2018.
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van Onkelen RS, Gosselink MP. Is it possible to improve the outcome of transanal advancement flap repair for high transsphincteric fistulas by additional ligation of the intersphincteric fistula tract? Dis Colon Rectum. 2012;55(2):163-166.
Last reviewed November 2018 by
EBSCO Medical Review Board
Daus Mahnke, MD
Last Updated: 12/20/2014