A 45-year-old man with a past medical history of hypertension presents to the emergency room with a 2-day history of rectal fullness and perirectal pain. The pain is throbbing in nature and mildly worsens with a bowel movement.
The patient is afebrile, with blood pressure elevated to 150/95. On examination, his abdomen is non-tender. Rectal examination reveals an exquisitely painful mass in the left lateral position. A full rectal examination is impossible due to the pain. His lab work is unremarkable with the exception of a leukocytosis to 15.
Although failure of patients to seek medical attention and misattribution of anorectal pain to hemorrhoids confound epidemiological data, an estimated 100,000 cases of anorectal abscess are diagnosed yearly in the United States.1 Most patients present between the ages of 20 to 60, with a mean age of 40 in both genders.2 In adult patients, males are twice as likely to develop an abscess compared to women. Interestingly, neither personal hygiene nor sedentary occupation has been linked to development of an anorectal abscess.
Anorectal abscesses originate from an infection of the anal crypt gland. When the gland becomes obstructed, suppuration follows the path of least resistance into the wall of the anal canal. Knowledge of anatomy is essential in knowing the five possible tracts (Figure 25–1):
Diagram of acute anorectal abscesses and spaces. (a) Supralevator space, (b) ischiorectal space, (c) perianal space, (d) marginal (mucocutaneous) space, (e) submucosal space, (f) intersphincteric space, (g) ischiorectal space. (Reproduced with permission from Doherty GM. Current Diagnosis & Treatment: Surgery. 13th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2010.)
Intersphincteric abscess—the infection extends between the internal and external sphincter, sparing the anal verge.
Perianal abscess—the infection extends between the internal and external sphincter to reach the anal verge.
Ischiorectal abscess—the infection ruptures through the external sphincter into the ischiorectal fat.
Supralevator abscess—the infection extends above the levators.
Horseshoe abscess—the infection starts in the deep postanal space and then extends to either or both ischiorectal fossae.
In terms of natural history of the disease, there are the three possible outcomes. An abscess can
drain and heal
drain and form a fistula
remain undrained and progress to anal sepsis, with high morbidity and mortality
The primary presenting symptom of an anorectal abscess is pain in the anal or rectal area. The pain is constant and is not necessarily associated with bowel movements. Systemic symptoms such as fever and malaise are common. With spontaneous opening, purulent rectal drainage may be seen.
On physical examination, low abscesses (perirectal and ischiorectal) are identified by swelling, cellulitis, and exquisite tenderness to palpation. Higher abscesses (horseshoe, supralevator) will likely be associated with pain, fever, and urinary retention. An intersphincteric abscess can be difficult to diagnose, as it is associated with exquisite tenderness on palpation, but no other obvious examination findings.
As the most common presenting symptom of an anorectal abscess is pain, a number of other conditions should be considered. These include a thrombosed hemorrhoid, anal fissure, levator spasm, sexually transmitted disease, proctitis, and neoplasm (Table 25–1). However, only an anorectal abscess is a surgical emergency and should be ruled out first. The clinician should never attribute acute anal pain to thrombosed internal hemorrhoids (these never cause pain unless incarcerated and visible) or perianal cellulitis (this is almost always associated with an underlying abscess), as these entities are extremely rare, and misdiagnosis may allow occult anal sepsis to progress untreated.
WORKUP AND CHOICE OF IMAGING
In a patient with a history and physical examination consistent with a perirectal abscess, it is most prudent to proceed to incision and drainage. However, if the presence of a drainable collection is uncertain, there are a number of imaging modalities to clarify the diagnosis.
A CT scan of the pelvis with intravenous contrast allows identification of the abscess, and can help exclude a supralevator component. Although some authors claim differentiation on CT between perirectal cellulitis and abscesses, the distinction is not clinically relevant.3 Drainage should be undertaken in any patient with anal cellulitis and phlegmon on CT, as these findings frequently translate into true purulence at the time of an intervention. In fact, one study reports overall sensitivity of CT in identifying abscess to be only 77%.4 Limitations of CT include unreliable identification of the levator ani and exposure to ionizing radiation.
MRI is useful in patients with complex fistulizing disease, and has proven especially helpful in confirmation of a fistulous tract in patients with prolonged drainage from a prior debridement site. Sensitivity of 89% and specificity of 69% have been reported for detection of fistula-in-ano.5 However, MRI is not the test of choice in a patient who presents with a de-novo abscess, due to both time and to cost.