In Medicine, what is a Fistula?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A fistula is an abnormal passage that forms between two internal organs or between the skin and an internal organ. In most cases, fistulas form as a result of developmental abnormalities, injury, or disease. Sometimes, however, a doctor may actually deliberately create a fistula, as in a colostomy, in which a passage is created between part of the colon and the abdominal wall to provide an outlet for feces when a patient's colon has been damaged or destroyed as a result of a condition such as cancer.

A rectal fistula can form between the rectum and vagina.
A rectal fistula can form between the rectum and vagina.

Fistulas can form anywhere in the body. One of the most infamous examples of the fistula is an obstetric fistula, a complication of childbirth which can occur in the developing world. In these cases, an opening forms between the vagina and the rectum or between the vagina and the bladder. In the developing world, obstetric fistulas are a serious problem because many women lack access to medical care to have them corrected; organizations such as the Fistula Foundation are working in the developing world to provide women with medical treatment for this debilitating condition.

Surgically-created fistulas are sometimes used for patients undergoing prolonged treatments like dialysis.
Surgically-created fistulas are sometimes used for patients undergoing prolonged treatments like dialysis.

Another type of fistula is a rectal fistula, often caused by an abscess which bursts. In this case, the rectum drains through to the skin around the anus, instead of through the anus itself. Other examples of fistulas include connections between the trachea and esophagus and fistulas in the digestive tract. People with chronic inflammatory conditions tend to be at increased risk for fistulas because they are more likely to develop abscesses which can create fistulas.

Treatment for a fistula starts with finding the location and determining the path it takes. In some cases, doctors learn that the opening is incomplete or partial, meaning that it is only open on one end. Once the fistula has been pinpointed, a surgical procedure can be performed to close it, with antibiotics to resolve infection. Sometimes, a fistula needs to be kept open during antibiotic treatment to clear infection, and sometimes tubes will be placed so that pus can drain. Once the area is healthy again, a doctor can perform surgery to close the opening.

When such an opening is deliberately created, it is done so with a therapeutic goal in mind, such as creating a temporary route for drainage, or a point of insertion for a feeding tube. The doctor will provide the patient with very specific care instructions so that the patient can manage the opening safely and hygienically.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@MissDaphne - Yes, women in the developing world are more likely to develop fistulas for a lot of reasons. For one thing, they often attempt to deliver babies far from medical care. They might labor for days before reaching a hospital, causing serious damage.

They are also more likely to be very young - not fully grown - which makes it difficult to deliver a baby. So does having a skeleton that isn't all it should be because you've been chronically malnourished.

I've been donated money for fistula treatment in the third world ever since I read a book in which one of the characters is a lay surgeon (that is, not formally trained, but self-taught, taught through apprenticeship, etc.) who makes fistula repair his life's work. These women are often ostracized because, as you can image, they don't smell very good. It's life-changing surgery.


I know a lot of women who've had a lot of babies, and I've never heard of a woman in the US having an obstetric fistula. I get that women in the developing world are less likely to be able to have them repaired, but are they also more likely to get them in the first place? What causes them?

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