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Am J Gastroenterol. 2005 Jan;100(1):106-14.

Rectal hyposensitivity: a disorder of the rectal wall or the afferent pathway? An assessment using the barostat.

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Centre for Academic Surgery (Gastrointestinal Physiology Unit), Barts and The London, Queen Mary's School of Medicine & Dentistry, Whitechapel, London E1 1BB, United Kingdom.



Rectal hyposensitivity (RH) relates to a diminished perception of rectal distension. Diagnosis on the basis of abnormal threshold volumes on balloon distension alone may be inaccurate due to the influence of differing rectal wall properties. The aim of this study was to investigate whether RH was actually due to impaired afferent nerve function or whether it could be secondary to abnormalities of the rectal wall.


A total of 50 patients were referred consecutively to a tertiary referral unit for physiologic assessment of constipation (Rome II criteria), 25 of whom had associated fecal incontinence. Thirty patients had RH (elevated threshold volumes on latex balloon distension), and 20 patients had normal rectal sensation (NS). Results were compared with those obtained in 20 healthy volunteers (HV). All subjects underwent standard anorectal physiologic investigation, and assessment of rectal compliance, adaptive response to isobaric distension at urge threshold, and postprandial rectal response, using an electromechanical barostat.


Mean rectal compliance was significantly elevated in patients with RH compared to NS and HV (p < 0.001). However, 16 patients with RH (53%) had normal compliance. Intensity of the urge to defecate during random phasic isobaric distensions was significantly reduced in patients with RH compared to NS and HV (p < 0.001). The adaptive response at urge threshold was reduced in patients with RH compared to NS and HV (p < 0.001), although spontaneous adaptation at operating pressure was similar in all three groups studied (p= 0.3). Postprandially, responses were similar between groups.


In patients found to have RH on simple balloon distension, impaired perception of rectal distension may be partly explained in one subgroup by abnormal rectal compliance. However, a second subgroup exists with normal rectal wall properties, suggestive of a true impairment of the afferent pathway. The barostat has an important role in the identification of these subgroups of patients.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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