The effect of sympathetic nerve block and efferent stimulation of the sympathetic nerves on anorectal motility was studied in 21 patients undergoing operation for rectal carcinoma. Anal pressure and rectal volume were simultaneously recorded before and after epidural anaesthesia and during nerve stimulation. Efferent electrical stimulation of the presacral hypogastric nerves (HGN) elicited a contraction of the internal anal sphincter (IAS) in 13 out of 15 patients. The contraction was preceded by a relaxation in seven patients. In the rectum stimulation of the HGN caused variable responses. A weak contraction was the most frequent response. Efferent stimulation of the periarterial lumbar colonic nerves (LCN) elicited a clear-cut contraction of the IAS, while rectal motor responses were only occasionally observed. Epidural anaesthesia encompassing the thoraco-lumbar region (EDA), when used to block the sympathetic discharge to the IAS and the rectum, caused a reduction of anal pressure (28 +/- 11%) and an increased rectal tone. The results imply that the human IAS receives a sympathetic excitatory innervation via both the HGN and the LCN. Furthermore, it appears that the HGN convey inhibitory fibres to the IAS. The rectal responses to EDA and sympathetic nerve stimulation also indicate the presence of both excitatory and inhibitory neurones in the sympathetic nerve supply to the rectum in man.