Biopsies of the external anal sphincter, puborectalis, and levator ani muscles have been examined in 24 women and one man with long-standing anorectal incontinence, 18 of whom also had rectal prolapse, and in two men with rectal prolapse alone. In 16 of the women anorectal incontinence was of unknown cause, but in eight there was a history of difficult labour. Similar biopsies were examined in six control subjects. In all the incontinent patients there was histological evidence of denervation, which was most prominent in the external anal sphincter muscle biopsies, and least prominent in the levator ani muscles. Myopathic features, which were thought to be secondary, were present in the more abnormal biopsies. There were severe histological abnormalities in small nerves supplying the external anal sphincter muscle in the three cases in which material was available for study. We suggest that idiopathic anorectal incontinence may be the result of denervation of the muscles of the anorectal sling, and of the anal sphincter mechanism. This could result from entrapment or stretch injury of the pudendal or perineal nerves occurring as a consequence of rectal descent induced during repeated defaecation straining, or from injuries to these nerves associated with childbirth.
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