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Fistulas can arise in any part of the body, but they are most common in the digestive tract. They can also develop between blood vessels and in the urinary, reproductive, and lymphatic systems. Fistulas can occur at any age or can be present at birth (congenital). Some are life-threatening, others cause discomfort, while still others are benign and go undetected or cause few symptoms. Diabetics, individuals with compromised immune systems (AIDS, cancer) and individuals with certain gastrointestinal diseases (Crohn's disease, inflammatory bowel disease) are at increased risk of developing fistulas.

Fistulas are categorized by the number of openings they have and whether they connect two internal organs or open through the skin. There are four common types:

  • Blind fistulas are open on one end only.
  • Complete fistulas have one internal opening and one opening on the skin.
  • Horseshoe fistulas are complex fistulas with more than one opening on the exterior of the body.
  • Incomplete fistulas are tubes of skin that are open on the outside but closed on the inside and do not connect to any internal structure.

Fistulas of the digestive tract

Anal and rectal fistulas develop in the wall of the anus or rectum. They connect the interior of the body to one or several openings in the skin. Anal and rectal fistulas almost always begin as an inflammation in an anal gland. The inflammation then moves into muscle tissue and develops into an abscess. In about half of all cases, the abscess develops into a fistula, degrading the muscle until an opening in the skin is created. About 9 people of every 100,000 develop anal fistulas, with men almost twice more likely to develop the condition than women. Although they may develop at any age, the average age for the development of anal fistulas is 38.

Intestinal fistulas can develop in both the large and small intestine. They are commonly associated with diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease(IBD) and Crohn's disease.

Tracheoesophageal fistulas (TEF) are usually birth defects. The windpipe, or trachea, is abnormally connected to the esophagus. This allows air to enter the digestive system and makes it possible to breathe food into the lungs (aspiration). In many cases, the esophagus is also incomplete, causing immediate feeding problems. There are several types of TEFs categorized by where the fistula is located and how the esophagus and trachea are connected, but all are life-threatening and require prompt surgery to repair. TEFs occur in about one of every 1,500-3,000 births.

Fistulas of the urinary and reproductive tract

The most common type of fistula involving these systems is a vesicovaginal fistula, in which the woman's vagina is connected to the urinary bladder. This causes leakage of urine from the vagina and results in frequent vaginal and bladder infections. Fistulas may also develop between the vagina and the large intestine (a enterovaginal fistula) so that feces leaks from the vagina. Although both these types of fistulas are uncommon in the developed world, they are common in poor developing countries and result from long, difficult labor and childbirth, especially in very young girls. As a result, they are sometimes referred to as obstetric fistulas.

Some experts suggest that in parts of Africa, as many as 3-4 women develop these fistulas out of every 1,000 births. Others estimate that as many as 2 million women worldwide are living with unrepaired obstetric fistulas. If left unrepaired, obstetric fistulas cause women to constantly leak urine and feces. As a result, they become social outcasts, causing them extreme hardship and psychological trauma.

Fistulas of the circulatory system

Arteriovenous fistulas (AVF) can develop between an artery and a vein in any part of the body. These fistulas vary in size, length, and frequency. Arteries contain blood carrying oxygen to all parts of the body, while veins carry blood that has given up its oxygen back to the lungs. Connections between arteries and veins cause changes in blood pressure that result in abnormal development of the walls of the arteries and abnormal blood flow. Arteriovenous fistulas that are present at birth are sometimes referred to as arteriovenous malformations (AVMs). Many arteriovenous fistulas are present, but not evident at birth, and become obvious only after trauma. AVFs can also be acquired from penetrating trauma.

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