Professional Reference articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

Tenesmus is a spurious feeling of the need to evacuate the bowels, with little or no stool passed. Tenesmus may be constant or intermittent, and is usually accompanied by pain, cramping and involuntary straining efforts. It can be a temporary and transient problem related to constipation. The term rectal tenesmus is sometimes used to differentiate from vesical tenesmus, which is an overwhelming desire to empty the bladder.

There are a number of possible causes of tenesmus. The most common is inflammatory bowel disease. Causes include:

NB: tenesmus can be a common symptom in those patients with advanced colorectal, genitourinary or prostate cancer.[1]

It is essential to make a thorough assessment to identify the cause of tenesmus. It is particularly important to consider serious underlying causes (eg, malignancy, inflammatory bowel disease) when there may be associated symptoms such as weight loss and rectal bleeding.


Abdominal examination should be performed followed by both digital rectal examination and proctoscopy. There may be faecal impaction, a large polyp or very congested and inflamed mucosa.

  • If the cause of the problem is not apparent, FBC, erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) and C-reactive protein (CRP) may indicate an underlying inflammatory condition.
  • Sigmoidoscopy and even colonoscopy may be required.
  • Plain abdominal X-ray may be of value.
  • Sexually active females presenting with rectal pain and tenesmus should be screened for chlamydial infection of the rectum.[2]

Management will depend on the cause:

  • Where the problem is constipation, simple measures such as increasing dietary fibre may help.
  • Malignancy requires appropriate intervention. In advanced rectal carcinoma, radiotherapy can relieve tenesmus.[3]
  • Multidisciplinary laparoscopic treatment is usually undertaken for women with bowel endometriosis.[4]Depending on size of the lesion and site of involvement, full-thickness disc excision or bowel resection is performed by an experienced colorectal surgeon.
  • A thrombosed pile requires incision and evacuation.
  • In distal ulcerative colitis, although topical treatments can help significantly with distal disease, they often pose difficulty or discomfort for patients with tenesmus.[5]
  • Modern radiotherapy techniques reduce the risk of radiation proctitis. Although it often responds to conservative management, intervention is required if symptoms persist.
  • Endoscopic therapy using argon plasma coagulation has been shown to be more effective and to be safer than other endoscopic techniques for chronic radiation proctitis.[6]
  • Oral diltiazem has been shown to be beneficial when given as an adjunct therapy for management of chronic malignancy-associated perineal pain, specifically with characteristics of pressure-type pain and tenesmus.[1]

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Further reading & references

  1. Stowers KH, Hartman AD, Gustin J; Diltiazem for the management of malignancy-associated perineal pain and tenesmus. J Palliat Med. 2014 Sep 17(9):1075-7. doi: 10.1089/jpm.2014.0149. Epub 2014 Aug 14.
  2. Solomon ML, Middleman AB; Abdominal pain, constipation, and tenesmus in an adolescent female: consider Chlamydia proctitis. J Pediatr Adolesc Gynecol. 2013 Jun 26(3):e77-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jpag.2013.01.003. Epub 2013 Mar 19.
  3. Kye BH, Cho HM; Overview of radiation therapy for treating rectal cancer. Ann Coloproctol. 2014 Aug 30(4):165-74. doi: 10.3393/ac.2014.30.4.165. Epub 2014 Aug 26.
  4. Wolthuis AM, Tomassetti C; Multidisciplinary laparoscopic treatment for bowel endometriosis. Best Pract Res Clin Gastroenterol. 2014 Feb 28(1):53-67. doi: 10.1016/j.bpg.2013.11.008. Epub 2013 Dec 2.
  5. Renée Marchioni Beery, Sunanda Kane; Current approaches to the management of new-onset ulcerative colitis. Clin Exp Gastroenterol. 2014 7: 111–132. Published online 2014 May 9. doi: 10.2147/CEG.S35942.
  6. Rustagi T, Mashimo H; Endoscopic management of chronic radiation proctitis. World J Gastroenterol. 2011 Nov 7 17(41):4554-62. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v17.i41.4554.
Original Author:
Dr Colin Tidy
Current Version:
Dr Louise Newson
Peer Reviewer:
Prof Cathy Jackson
Document ID:
2838 (v22)
Last Checked:
25 September 2014
Next Review:
24 September 2019

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.