Rectovaginal fistula is a type of fistula that affects the area between the anus and the vagina. It is an uncommon medical condition, although not unheard of in patients who have had complicated childbirths or underwent surgery to treat Crohn’s disease.
What Are the Symptoms of Rectovaginal Fistula?
The most common symptom of a rectovaginal fistula is drainage from the vagina. This drainage is foul-smelling and may contain pus. Other symptoms include:
What Are the Causes of Rectovaginal Fistula?
The most common cause of rectovaginal fistula is trauma to the affected area during childbirth. Other causes include:
How Is Rectovaginal Fistula Diagnosed?
If your doctor suspects you have a rectovaginal fistula, they’ll examine your vagina and anus. They may use a small mirror and light to get a better view of the area.
Your doctor may also perform a sphincterotomy or vaginoscopy to get a closer look at the fistula. During a sphincterotomy, your doctor will make an incision in the affected area to look for signs of a fistula. During a vaginosis your doctor use a speculum to get a better view.
Your doctor may also order an anorectal manometry test or anal electromyography. These tests measure the pressure your muscles generate when you strain or contract them.
Your doctor may also use imaging tests such as MRI, ultrasound, or CT scans to get a better look at the affected area.
Treatment for Rectovaginal Fistulas
Treatment for rectovaginal fistulas depends on the size and severity of the fistula.
Surgery is the only permanent solution for rectovaginal fistulas. The type of surgery that’s right for you will depend on the type and severity of your fistula.
During a fistulotomy, your surgeon will open up the fistula to try and close it. This is the most common type of surgery for rectovaginal fistulas. However, it may not be suitable if your fistula is too complex or too close to the sphincter muscles.
Advancement Flap Procedures
Your surgeon may also use a flap procedure to repair the fistula. During a flap procedure, your surgeon will move healthy tissue from one area of the body to cover the fistula. This tissue is called a flap.
If your rectovaginal fistula is due to trauma from childbirth, your doctor may suggest a perineoplasty. During this procedure, your surgeon will reconstruct the area between the anus and vagina.
Recovery and Outlook
The recovery timeline depends on the type of surgery that was used to treat the fistula and the severity of the fistula.
Your doctor will be able to give you a better idea of the recovery time based on your individual situation. Generally, however, you can expect to have some soreness or discomfort in the area for several weeks after surgery.
The success rate of surgery for rectovaginal fistulas is usually very good. After surgery, the fistula should be completely healed and you should be able to go back to all of your normal activities.
Definition and Overview
A fistula is an abnormal tract that forms a tunnel between two organs in the body. If it connects the rectum and the vagina, it is referred to as rectovaginal fistula. Other fistulas that involve the vagina include vesicovaginal fistula (opens into the urinary tract), colovaginal fistula (opens into the colon), and enterovaginal fistula (opens into the small bowel).
Rectovaginal fistulas, just like other vaginal fistulas, are usually painless and do not represent a life-threatening emergency. However, they can cause significant discomfort and emotional distress as they allow the bowel content and gas to pass through the vagina. This leads to incontinence and hygiene problems, which can impact intimacy and self-esteem.
Causes of the Condition
Rectovaginal fistulas commonly develop as a result of trauma during childbirth. They are often observed in developing countries where health care is inadequate. In these countries, rectovaginal fistulas are one of the leading causes of maternal death.
The condition, which is extremely rare in Western culture, can also be the result of episiotomy, a surgical cut between the vagina and the anus made by a midwife or obstetricians during childbirth to enlarge the vaginal opening. This is often necessary if there’s a risk of serious foetal distress due to prolonged labour.
Other less common rectovaginal fistula causes include:
Rectovaginal fistula symptoms, which cause physical discomfort and emotional distress, include:
Who to See and Types of Treatments Available
Doctors often diagnose the condition during physical examination and assessment of symptoms of rectovaginal fistula. However, additional diagnostic tests are performed to accurately assess its extent. These tests include:
Although rectovaginal fistulas are easy to diagnose, they are often difficult to cure and patience is required during the evaluation process to fully assess the extent of the condition.
After diagnosing a patient with rectovaginal fistula, it is a common practice for patients to undergo antibiotic therapy for up to three months for the treatment of any inflammation or infection. In some cases, this is enough for some fistulas to close on their own. However, most require a surgical procedure, which involves incising the fistula so it can heal. This can be done through the vagina or rectum (for low fistulas) or via an incision in the abdomen (for high fistulas located at the posterior fornix).
During a rectovaginal fistula repair, a sharp circumferential dissection is made to separate the vagina from the rectum. The entire fistulous tract and the small rim of the mucosa are then incised before the rectal wall is closed with incisions.
Rectovaginal fistula treatment also involves harvesting a tissue graft from other parts of the body or folding a flap of healthy tissue near the fistula to cover the opening. Surgeons also repair the anal sphincter muscles if they have been damaged.
Colostomy, a surgical procedure in which feces is diverted to a bag outside of the body to allow the rectum to heal, is also performed in recurrent or complex cases. This is done when there’s scarring caused by previous radiation treatment or surgery, tissue damage, cancerous tumours, significant fecal contamination, or abscess. If a colostomy is performed, treatment of rectovaginal fistula will take place as soon as the rectum has healed, which can take between eight and twelve weeks. After rectovaginal fistula surgery, the colostomy is reversed to restore normal bowel function.
While waiting for the repair of a rectovaginal fistula, patients are advised to practice good hygiene to prevent infection. They are also given antibiotics and medications to treat inflammation.