Anal Canal Anatomy

The anal canal is the most terminal part of the lower GI tract/large intestine, which lies between the anal verge (anal orifice, anus) in the perineum below and the rectum above. The description in this topic is from below upwards, as that is how this region is usually examined in clinical practice. Images depicting the anal canal can be seen below. [1, 2]

Coronal section of rectum and anal canal. Coronal section of rectum and anal canal.
Coronal section through the anal canal. Coronal section through the anal canal.

The pigmented, keratinized perianal skin of the buttocks (around the anal verge) has skin appendages (eg, hair, sweat glands, sebaceous glands); compare this with the anal canal skin above the anal verge, which is also pigmented and keratinized but does not have skin appendages. [3, 4]

The demarcation between the rectum above and the anal canal below is the anorectal ring or anorectal flexure, where the puborectalis muscle forms a sling around the posterior aspect of the anorectal junction, kinking it anteriorly.

The anal canal is completely extraperitoneal. The length of the anal canal is about 4 cm (range, 3-5 cm), with two thirds of this being above the pectinate line (also known as the dentate line) and one third below the pectinate line.

The epithelium of the anal canal between the anal verge below and the pectinate line above is variously described as anal mucosa or anal skin. The author believes that it should be called anal skin (anoderm), as it looks like (pigmented) skin, is sensitive like skin (why a fissure-in-ano is very painful), and is keratinized (but does not have skin appendages).

The pectinate line is the site of transition of the proctodeum below and the postallantoic gut above. It is a scalloped demarcation formed by the anal valves (transverse folds of mucosa) at the inferior-most ends of the anal columns. Anal glands open above the anal valves into the anal sinuses. The pectinate line is not seen on inspection in clinical practice, but under anesthesia the anal canal descends down, and the pectinate line can be seen on slight retraction of the anal canal skin.

The anal canal just above the pectinate line for about 1-2 cm is called the anal pecten or transitional zone. Above this transitional zone, the anal canal is lined with columnar epithelium (which is insensitive to cutting). Anal columns (of Morgagni) are 6-10 longitudinal (vertical) mucosal folds in the upper part of the anal canal.

At the bottom of these columns are anal sinuses or crypts, into which open the anal glands and anal papillae. Infection of the anal glands is likely the initial event in causation of perianal abscess and fistula-in-ano. Three of these columns (left lateral, right posterior, and right anterior, at 3-, 7-, and 11-o’clock positions in supine position) are prominent; they are called anal cushions and contain branches and tributaries of superior rectal (hemorrhoidal) artery and vein. When prominent, veins in these cushions form the internal hemorrhoids.

The anorectal junction or anorectal ring is situated about 5 cm from the anus. At the anorectal flexure or angle, the anorectal junction is pulled anterosuperiorly by the puborectal sling to continue below as the anal canal.

Levator ani and coccygeus muscles form the pelvic diaphragm. Lateral to the anal canal are the pyramidal ischioanal (ischiorectal) fossae (1 on either side), below the pelvic diaphragm and above the perianal skin. The paired ischioanal fossae communicate with each other behind the anal canal. The anterior relations of the anal canal are, in males, the seminal vesicles, prostate, and urethra, and, in females, the cervix and vagina with perineal body in between. In front of (anterior to) the anal canal is the rectovesical fascia (of Denonvilliers), and behind (posterior) is the presacral endopelvic fascia (of Waldeyer), under which lie a rich presacral plexus of veins. Posterior to the anal canal lie the tip of the coccyx (joined to it by the anococcygeal ligament) and lower sacrum.

The anal canal is surrounded by several perianal spaces: subcutaneous, submucosal, intersphincteric, ischioanal (rectal) and pelvirectal.

Blood supply and lymphatics

The anal canal above the pectinate line is supplied by the terminal branches of the superior rectal (hemorrhoidal) artery, which is the terminal branch of the inferior mesenteric artery. The middle rectal artery (a branch of the internal iliac artery) and the inferior rectal artery (a branch of the internal pudendal artery) supply the lower anal canal.

Beneath the anal canal skin (below the pectinate line) lies the external hemorrhoidal plexus of veins, which drains into systemic veins. Beneath the anal canal mucosa (above the pectinate line) lies the internal hemorrhoidal plexus of veins, which drains into the portal system of veins. The anal canal is, therefore, an important area of portosystemic venous connection (the other being the esophagogastric junction). Lymphatics from the anal canal drain into the superficial inguinal group of lymph nodes.

Physiology

Anorectal sphincter tone can be assessed during digital rectal examination (DRE) when the patient is asked to squeeze the examining finger. Anorectal manometry measures the pressures: resting and squeezing.

Embryology

The anal canal below the pectinate line develops from the proctodeum (ectoderm), while that above the pectinate line develops from the endoderm of the hindgut.

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