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Most of the time, the rectum is empty of feces. This results partly from the fact that a weak functional sphincter exists about 20 centimeters from the anus at the juncture between the sigmoid colon and the rectum. There is also a sharp angulation here that contributes additional resistance to filling of the rectum.

When a mass movement forces feces into the rectum, the desire for defecation occurs immediately, including reflex contraction of the rectum and relaxation of the anal sphincters.

Continual dribble of fecal matter through the anus is prevented by tonic constriction of (1) an internal anal sphincter, a several-centimeters-long thickening of the circular smooth muscle that lies immediately inside the anus, and (2) an external anal sphincter, composed of striated voluntary muscle that both surrounds the internal sphincter and extends distal to it. The external sphincter is controlled by nerve fibers in the pudendal nerve, which is part of the somatic nervous system and therefore is under voluntary, conscious or at least subconscious control; subconsciously, the external sphincter is usually kept continuously constricted unless conscious signals inhibit the constriction.

Defecation Reflexes. Ordinarily, defecation is initiated by defecation reflexes. One of these reflexes is an intrinsic reflex mediated by the local enteric nervous system in the rectal wall. This can be described as follows: When feces enter the rectum, distention of the rectal wall initiates afferent signals that spread through the myenteric plexus to initiate peristaltic waves in the descending colon, sigmoid, and rectum, forcing feces toward the anus. As the peristaltic wave approaches the anus, the internal anal sphincter is relaxed by inhibitory signals from the myenteric plexus; if the external anal sphincter is also consciously, voluntarily relaxed at the same time, defecation occurs.

The intrinsic myenteric defecation reflex functioning by itself normally is relatively weak. To be effective in causing defecation, it usually must be fortified by another type of defecation reflex, a parasympathetic defecation reflex that involves the sacral segments of the spinal cord, shown in Figure 63-6. When the nerve endings in the rectum are stimulated, signals are transmitted first into the spinal cord and then reflexly back to the descending colon, sigmoid, rectum, and anus by way of parasympathetic nerve fibers in the pelvic nerves. These parasympathetic signals greatly intensify the peristaltic waves as well as relax the internal anal


From colon conscious cortex


From colon conscious cortex

Nerve Endings Anus

Internal anal sphincter

Figure 63-6

Internal anal sphincter

Figure 63-6

Afferent and efferent pathways of the parasympathetic mechanism for enhancing the defecation reflex.

sphincter, thus converting the intrinsic myenteric defecation reflex from a weak effort into a powerful process of defecation that is sometimes effective in emptying the large bowel all the way from the splenic flexure of the colon to the anus.

Defecation signals entering the spinal cord initiate other effects, such as taking a deep breath, closure of the glottis, and contraction of the abdominal wall muscles to force the fecal contents of the colon downward and at the same time cause the pelvic floor to relax downward and pull outward on the anal ring to evaginate the feces.

When it becomes convenient for the person to defecate, the defecation reflexes can purposely be activated by taking a deep breath to move the diaphragm downward and then contracting the abdominal muscles to increase the pressure in the abdomen, thus forcing fecal contents into the rectum to cause new reflexes. Reflexes initiated in this way are almost never as effective as those that arise naturally, for which reason people who too often inhibit their natural reflexes are likely to become severely constipated.

In newborn babies and in some people with transected spinal cords, the defecation reflexes cause automatic emptying of the lower bowel at inconvenient times during the day because of lack of conscious control exercised through voluntary contraction or relaxation of the external anal sphincter.

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  • jali pesonen
    How can the parasympathetic defecation reflex be voluntarily controlled?
    9 months ago

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