Review article: colonic sensorimotor physiology in health, and its alteration in constipation and diarrhoeal disorders

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To review the physiology of colonic motility and sensation in healthy humans and the pathophysiological changes associated with constipation and diarrhoea.


Medline Search from 1965 using the index terms: human, colonic motility, sensation, pharmacology, neurohormonal control, gastrointestinal transit, constipation, diarrhoea and combinations of these.


In health, the ascending and transverse regions of colon function as reservoirs to accommodate ileal chyme and the descending colon acts as a conduit; the neuromuscular functions and transmitters control colonic motility and sensation and play pivotal roles in disorders associated with constipation and/or diarrhoea. Disorders of proximal colonic transit contribute to symptoms in idiopathic constipation, diarrhoea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome and carcinoid diarrhoea. Colonic function in patients presenting with constipation is best assessed clinically by colonic transit time using radiopaque markers ingested orally. Measurements of colonic contractility are less useful clinically but they can help identify motor abnormalities including colonic inertia; in some patients with irritable bowel syndrome, abdominal pain, urgency and diarrhoea are temporally associated with high amplitude contractions, which originate in the proximal colon and traverse the distal conduit at very high propagation velocities. Visceral hypersensitivity contributes to the urgency and tenesmus in irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. Colonic motility and sensation can be reduced by anticholinergic agents, somatostatin analogues and 5HT3 antagonists.


Physiological and pharmacological studies of the human colon have provided new insights into the pathophysiology of colonic disorders, and offer possibilities of novel therapeutic approaches for constipation or diarrhoea associated with colonic motor or sensory dysfunction.

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