Tenesmus: Causes, Symptoms, and Managing Difficulty in Passing Stool


Tenesmus: Causes, Symptoms, and Managing Difficulty in Passing Stool

Tenesmus is a medical term that describes the feeling of a persistent urge to pass stool, even if the bowels are already empty. This uncomfortable condition can be both distressing and debilitating, affecting quality of life. Here, we review the causes and symptoms of tenesmus and discuss the management of related conditions, including the scenario where one might have difficulty passing stool without being constipated.

Causes of Tenesmus

Tenesmus is primarily associated with inflammatory conditions of the gastrointestinal tract. Here are some common causes:

  1. Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): Conditions such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, which cause long-term inflammation of the digestive tract, often lead to tenesmus.
  2. Rectal Infection: Infections like proctitis or sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that involve the rectum can result in inflammation and the sensation of incomplete bowel movements.
  3. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): While typically associated with abdominal discomfort and altered bowel habits, IBS can occasionally lead to tenesmus.
  4. Colorectal Cancer: In some cases, a tumor in the rectum or the lower part of the colon can cause tenesmus.
  5. Hemorrhoids and Anal Fissures: These common anorectal problems can cause a false sensation of needing to pass stool.

Symptoms of Tenesmus

The sensation of tenesmus can be both painful and frustrating. Symptoms include:

  • A continual urge to defecate despite an empty colon
  • Abdominal pain and discomfort
  • Rectal bleeding or mucus in stool, particularly if associated with an inflammatory disorder
  • A sense of rectal fullness or bloating

Difficulty Passing Stool but Not Constipated

It’s possible to feel like you have difficulty passing stool due to tenesmus without actually being constipated. This sensation can arise from the intense and frequent urge to pass stool, which is more about the discomfort in the rectal area rather than a problem with stool frequency or consistency. Causes can include:

  • Rectal inflammation: As mentioned, any inflammation or irritation in the rectum can create a false sensation of needing to defecate.
  • Neurological conditions: Disorders that affect the nerves in the bowel such as multiple sclerosis or diabetic neuropathy might cause dysfunction in the bowel movements without actual stool presence.
  • Psychological factors: Anxiety and stress can sometimes lead to sensations that mimic physical symptoms including tenesmus.

Tenesmus: Diagnostic workup

The diagnostic workup for tenesmus is a systematic approach aimed at identifying the underlying cause of this symptom. Since tenesmus—the feeling of incomplete evacuation or persistent urge to defecate—can be caused by various gastrointestinal and other medical conditions, a thorough evaluation is crucial. Here’s an outline of the typical diagnostic steps:

1. Medical History and Physical Examination

The first step involves a detailed patient history to understand the duration, frequency, and severity of symptoms, associated signs (like pain, bleeding, or weight loss), and any relevant medical history (such as inflammatory bowel disease, previous infections, or cancer). The physical examination will likely include an abdominal exam and a rectal examination to check for masses, tenderness, or other abnormalities.

2. Laboratory Tests

Blood and stool tests can provide clues about inflammatory processes, infections, or the presence of blood in the stool. Common tests include:

3. Imaging Studies

Imaging can help visualize the colon and other parts of the gastrointestinal tract. Options include:

  • Abdominal X-rays: To rule out obvious causes of bowel obstruction or abnormal gas patterns.
  • Computed Tomography (CT) scan: Provides a detailed image that can help to detect inflammatory diseases, tumors, and other structural abnormalities.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): Particularly useful for viewing soft tissues and assessing fistulas around the bowel in conditions like Crohn’s disease.

4. Endoscopic Procedures

These are critical for directly visualizing the interior of the colon and rectum and for taking biopsy samples:

  • Colonoscopy: The gold standard for assessing the entire colon and rectum. It can detect inflammation, tumors, polyps, and other abnormalities.
  • Sigmoidoscopy: Focuses on the lower part of the colon and may be used if symptoms are localized to this area.

5. Functional Tests

In some cases, functional tests to evaluate the anorectal muscles and nerves might be necessary, especially if there’s a suspicion of pelvic floor dysfunction:

  • Anorectal manometry: Measures the strength and function of the anal sphincter muscles.
  • Defecography: An imaging test that examines the rectum and anal canal during defecation to assess how well stool is evacuated.

6. Biopsy

During endoscopic procedures, small samples of tissue (biopsies) are often taken to be examined under a microscope. This can confirm suspicions of inflammatory diseases, infections, or malignancies.

Tenesmus: Management and treatment

Management of tenesmus focuses on addressing the underlying cause. Treatment options include:

  • Medication: Anti-inflammatory drugs for conditions like IBD, antibiotics for infections, and pain relievers can help alleviate symptoms.
  • Dietary Adjustments: Increasing fiber intake, staying hydrated, and adopting a diet that suits your specific condition (such as low-FODMAP for IBS) can ease symptoms.
  • Surgical Options: For severe cases, particularly where tumors or strictures are involved, surgical intervention might be necessary.
  • Pelvic Floor Therapy: Techniques to strengthen or relax the pelvic floor muscles can be beneficial, especially if dysfunction contributes to tenesmus.


Tenesmus can significantly impact your life, prompting frequent trips to the bathroom and causing discomfort. Understanding the underlying causes and associated symptoms is essential for effective management. If you’re experiencing such symptoms, it’s important to consult a healthcare provider for a thorough evaluation and appropriate treatment plan. This proactive approach can help mitigate the discomfort associated with tenesmus and improve your overall digestive health.

Last update: 24 April 2024, 06:24


Gastroenterologist - Hepatologist, Thessaloniki

PhD at Medical School, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece

PGDip at Universitair Medisch Centrum Utrecht, The Netherlands

Ex President, Hellenic H. pylori & Microbiota Study Group