What is an Intestinal Fistula?

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  • Written By: N. Madison
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 19 September 2019
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An intestinal fistula is an abnormal connection that forms between a person’s intestine and another part of the body. For example, a fistula may connect a person’s bowel with his bladder or abdominal wall. In some cases, it may even connect the intestine to the patient's skin. Inflammation, infection, and injury are among the issues that may cause a fistula, and some people may have more than one. Treatment for an intestinal fistula may range from no treatment at all to antibiotics to immunosuppressive medications to surgery.

When a person develops an intestinal fistula, an abnormal passageway forms from his intestine to another part of his body; this often occurs as a result of inflammation. For example, if a person has a condition called Crohn's disease, he may experience inflammation in his intestine. This inflammation may cause a weak spot to develop in the wall of the intestine, and eventually, the area weakened by the inflammation may form a fistula. Other conditions, including injury or infection, may lead to the development of an intestinal fistula as well. For example, a person may develop a fistula in relation to ulcerative colitis or trauma to the abdominal region.


Interestingly, the passageway formed by an intestinal fistula can connect to a variety of areas in the body. In some cases, a passageway connects to other parts of a person’s bowel. Sometimes, however, it forms a connection with the patient’s abdominal wall or even the skin that surrounds the anal opening. An intestinal fistula may also affect parts of the body that are unrelated to the bowel. For instance, it may affect a person’s bladder or his muscles. In some cases, a fistula may even affect a person’s sex organs, such as the vagina or the scrotum.

The symptoms a person experiences with an intestinal fistula often depend on the organ or body structure it affects. Sometimes a patient may not notice symptoms of a fistula. This is particularly true when a fistula connects one part of the intestine to another. Other intestinal fistulas, however, may cause a significant amount of abdominal pain. Sometimes a fistula may also cause the bypassing of a significant part of the intestine, lead to infection, or contribute to the formation of an abscess.

The treatment for an intestinal fistula may depend on the symptoms it causes and its severity. If a fistula does not cause symptoms, doctors may not treat it. For those that do requite treatment, however, doctors may prescribe antibiotics, immunosuppressive drugs, or drugs that reduce the body’s production of chemicals that cause inflammation. In some cases, however, surgery is required.



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