Abdominal Imaging - Original Article

The contribution of preoperative MRI to the surgical management of anal fistulas


  • Ali Konan
  • Mehmet Ruhi Onur
  • Mustafa Nasuh Özmen

Received Date: 19.07.2018 Accepted Date: 26.07.2018 Diagn Interv Radiol 2018;24(6):321-327


Anal fistula is an abnormal tract or cavity between the anal canal and perianal skin. Surgical treatment of anal fistulas requires the identification of the course of the primary and secondary tracts and their relation with the sphincter musculature in order to appropriately manage them and drain any abscess. Physical examination alone is not as accurate as imaging modalities in detecting these features of the fistula, and recurrences are usually due to missed or inadequately managed infective components. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is the preferred imaging modality for detecting anal fistulas, but which patient group should undergo preoperative MRI is a matter of debate. The aim of this study was to determine the contribution of MRI in the surgical management of anal fistulas.


Medical records of patients who underwent surgery for primary anal fistula and preoperative MRI in our University Hospitals from January 1, 2008 to April 15, 2018 were collected anonymously and retrospectively. Any discrepancies between operative findings and MRI reports were noted. Two study groups were formed as per the contribution of preoperative MRI: significant and nonsignificant contribution groups. The significant contribution group included patients with secondary (blind) tracts, horseshoe fistulas, or abscesses undiagnosed at physical examination and examination under anesthesia; those with the location of the internal orifice different from that identified by physical examination; or those with the grade of the fistula assessed to be more advanced after preoperative MRI.


The total number of surgeries was 136. Mean patient age was 43±13 years. There were 106 males. In total, 47 patients suffered from recurrent fistulas. MRI contribution to clinical evaluation was significant in 33.8% of the patients. MRI more frequently provided significant information for complex fistulas than for simple fistulas. Significant preoperative MRI contribution was more frequent if the external opening was more than 2 cm away from the anal canal or when a horseshoe fistula was present.


Our study is valuable in linking physical examination findings with preoperative MRI findings. The distance of the external opening from the anal canal was not studied in the literature; our findings support the use of MRI for fistulas with external opening located more than 2 cm from the anus. These fistulas also tend to be complex and have a higher grade. In recurrent cases, MRI contributes not only by establishing the fistula anatomy but also by identifying possible sphincter damage.