Testing for and the role of anal and rectal sensation

Baillieres Clin Gastroenterol. 1992 Mar;6(1):179-91. doi: 10.1016/0950-3528(92)90026-b.


The rectum is insensitive to stimuli capable of causing pain and other sensations when applied to a somatic cutaneous surface. It is, however, sensitive to distension by an experimental balloon introduced through the anus, though it is not known whether it is the stretching or reflex contraction of the gut wall, or the distortion of the mesentery and adjacent structures which induces the sensation. No specific sensory receptors are seen on careful histological examination of the rectum in humans. However, myelinated and non-myelinated nerve fibres are seen adjacent to the rectal mucosa, but no intraepithelial fibres arise from these. The sensation of rectal distension travels with the parasympathetic system to S2, S3 and S4. The two main methods for quantifying rectal sensation are rectal balloon distension and mucosal electrosensitivity. The balloon is progressively distended until particular sensations are perceived by the patient. The volumes at which these sensations are perceived are recorded. Three sensory thresholds are usually defined: constant sensation of fullness, urge to defecate, and maximum tolerated volume. The modalities of anal sensation can be precisely defined. Touch, pain and temperature sensation exist in normal subjects. There is profuse innervation of the anal canal with a variety of specialized sensory nerve endings: Meissner's corpuscles which record touch sensation, Krause end-bulbs which respond to thermal stimuli, Golgi-Mazzoni bodies and pacinian corpuscles which respond to changes in tension and pressure, and genital corpuscles which respond to friction. In addition, there are large diameter free nerve endings within the epithelium. The nerve pathway for anal canal sensation is via the inferior haemorrhoidal branches of the pudendal nerve to the sacral roots of S2, S3 and S4. Anal sensation may be quantitatively measured in response to electrical stimulation. The technique involves the use of a specialized constant current generator and bipolar electrode probe inserted in the anal canal. The equipment is generally available and the technique has been shown to be an accurate and repeatable quantitative test of anal sensation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anal Canal / innervation*
  • Fecal Incontinence / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Pain / physiopathology
  • Rectum / innervation*
  • Reflex / physiology
  • Sensation / physiology*
  • Sensory Receptor Cells / physiology
  • Thermosensing / physiology
  • Touch / physiology