The Digestive System (cont.)
In this Article
- Digestion Introduction
- What is Digestion?
- Foods Journey - Stop 1: The Mouth
- Foods Journey - Stop 2: The Pharynx and Esophagus
- Foods Journey - Stop 3: The Stomach and Small Intestine
- Foods Journey - Stop 4: The Colon, Rectum and Anus
- Accessory organs in digestion
Stop 4: The Colon, Rectum and Anus
The colon (large intestine) is a five- to seven -foot -long muscular tube that connects the small intestine to the rectum. It is made up of the ascending (right) colon, the transverse (across) colon, the descending (left) colon and the sigmoid colon, which connects to the rectum. The appendix is a small tube attached to the ascending colon. The large intestine is a highly specialized organ that is responsible for processing waste so that defecation (excretion of waste) is easy and convenient.
Stool, or waste left over from the digestive process, passes through the colon by means of peristalsis, first in a liquid state and ultimately in solid form. As stool passes through the colon, any remaining water is absorbed. Stool is stored in the sigmoid (S-shaped) colon until a "mass movement" empties it into the rectum, usually once or twice a day.
It normally takes about 36 hours for stool to get through the colon. The stool itself is mostly food debris and bacteria. These bacteria perform several useful functions, such as synthesizing various vitamins, processing waste products and food particles, and protecting against harmful bacteria. When the descending colon becomes full of stool it empties its contents into the rectum to begin the process of elimination.
The rectum is an eight-inch chamber that connects the colon to the anus. The rectum:
- Receives stool from the colon.
- Lets the person know there is stool to be evacuated.
- Holds the stool until evacuation happens.
- When anything (gas or stool) comes into the rectum, sensors send a message to the brain. The brain then decides if the rectal contents can be released or not. If they can, the sphincters relax and the rectum contracts, expelling its contents. If the contents cannot be expelled, the sphincters contract and the rectum accommodates so that the sensation temporarily goes away.
The anus is the last part of the digestive tract. It consists of the muscles that line the pelvis (pelvic floor muscles) and two other muscles called anal sphincters (internal and external).
The pelvic floor muscle creates an angle between the rectum and the anus that stops stool from coming out when it is not supposed to. The anal sphincters provide fine control of stool. The internal sphincter is always tight, except when stool enters the rectum. It keeps us continent (not releasing stool) when we are asleep or otherwise unaware of the presence of stool. When we get an urge to defecate (go to the bathroom), we rely on our external sphincter to keep the stool in until we can get to the toilet.
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