Understanding the physiology of human defaecation and disorders of continence and evacuation

Paul T. Heitmann, Paul F. Vollebregt, Charles H. Knowles, Peter J. Lunniss, Phil G. Dinning, S. Mark Scott

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

57 Citations (Scopus)


The act of defaecation, although a ubiquitous human experience, requires the coordinated actions of the anorectum and colon, pelvic floor musculature, and the enteric, peripheral and central nervous systems. Defaecation is best appreciated through the description of four phases, which are, temporally and physiologically, reasonably discrete. However, given the complexity of this process, it is unsurprising that disorders of defaecation are both common and problematic; almost everyone will experience constipation at some time in their life and many will develop faecal incontinence. A detailed understanding of the normal physiology of defaecation and continence is critical to inform management of disorders of defaecation. During the past decade, there have been major advances in the investigative tools used to assess colonic and anorectal function. This Review details the current understanding of defaecation and continence. This includes an overview of the relevant anatomy and physiology, a description of the four phases of defaecation, and factors influencing defaecation (demographics, stool frequency/consistency, psychobehavioural factors, posture, circadian rhythm, dietary intake and medications). A summary of the known pathophysiology of defaecation disorders including constipation, faecal incontinence and irritable bowel syndrome is also included, as well as considerations for further research in this field.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)751-769
Number of pages19
JournalNature Reviews Gastroenterology and Hepatology
Issue number11
Early online date9 Aug 2021
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2021


  • defaecation
  • continence
  • evacuation
  • anorectum and colon
  • pelvic floor musculature
  • constipation
  • faecal incontinence


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