You have pain in the butt which comes and goes. You see a doctor. You want to know if you have hemorrhoids or cancer. Well, what else could it be?

There are at least six common causes for rectal and anal pain: pruritus (itch), external thrombosed hemorrhoid (a blood clot), prolapsed internal thrombosed hemorrhoids, fissure (tear), abscess, and fistula (tunnel). Ok, you can add one more condition to the list – proctalgia fugax.

Your next question is, “Doc, what is proctalgia fugax?”

This condition was first described in Ancient Rome over 2000 years ago and still carries the Latin name which translates to “fleeting rectal pain.” It occurs in about 14 percent of healthy people. Seventy five percent of these are women.

Sufferers of this condition often describe waking up from a sound sleep with a sharp pain, often described as stabbing pain “like a knife sticking deep in the rectum.” The pain is usually brief – lasting less than 20 minutes – and disappears as mysteriously as it comes.
Proctalgia fugax falls under the category of “unexplained rectal and anal pain”. Other conditions under this group are levator ani syndrome and coccygodinia.

Let us try and understand some anatomy first.

Colon ends in the pelvis to become sigmoid, rectum and anus. Sigmoid and rectum act as storage area for fecal matter. At a socially convenient place, the anal sphincters (valves) relax to allow us to defecate.

Anal canal is surrounded by two circular muscles known as internal and external sphincters. Rectum is surrounded by and held in place by pelvic floor consisting of a group of muscles called levator ani. Coccyx is the tail end of the spine, not too far from the anal canal.

Proctalgia fugax can begin during sleep, defecation, urination, or intercourse. The character of the pain has been compared to a charlie horse. It may only occur once a year or several times a week. Pain may be severe enough to cause sweating and palpitation. There may be a desire to have a bowel movement, yet pass no stool.

It is thought that a sudden spasm of the levator muscle complex or the sigmoid colon can result in proctalgia fugax. It is believed that people who frequent the toilet are at greatest risk. Professionals, managers, and perfectionists are more likely to be afflicted. Stress and anxiety plays a role in precipitating the pain.

The diagnosis is based almost entirely on the patient’s history. Clinical examination is usually negative. Patients should undergo flexible sigmoidoscopy to screen for other causes of ano-rectal diseases. Careful pelvic and prostate examinations should be undertaken. Ultrasound or CT scan of the pelvis may be necessary.

Patients with levator ani syndrome experience pain for hours to days. The pain is most often constant or rhythmic and may be likened to sitting on a ball or feeling like a ball (or corncob) was inside the rectum. Pain may be caused by defecation, sexual intercourse, sitting for long periods, and stress or anxiety. The pain is probably due to spasm of the pelvic floor muscles.

Coccygodynia is a cramp or ache in the tailbone and typically results from injury to the coccyx or arthritis. Movement of the coccyx can reproduce the pain. Pain from proctalgia fugax, levator syndrome, and coccygodynia may be hard to differentiate.

Treatment is often unrewarding. Some of the measures worth trying are: reassurance, hot baths, bowel regimens, massage therapy, perineal strengthening exercises, pain killers, anti-inflammatory, muscle relaxants, topical nitrates, tranquillizers, calcium channel blockers, acupuncture, and psychiatric evaluation.

Unfortunately, proctalgia fugax is one of the many medical conditions for which there is no good explanation or treatment.

This article was mentioned in my video blog (Had Your Butt Checked Out Lately?) on September 25, 2011.

Topics on my website: Proctalgia fugax and Hemorrhoids.

Dr. Bharwani is the author of A Doctor's Journey and Doctor B's Eight Steps to Wellness.

About the Author
Dr. Noorali Bharwani is a general surgeon and a former Regional Chief of Staff for the Palliser Health Region in southeastern Alberta. He is also a freelance writer and contributes columns on health, wellness and travel to newspapers in Canada.