Tenesmus is the feeling that you need to go to the toilet but your bowel is empty. You may have this after pelvic radiotherapy or bowel cancer surgery.

What is tenesmus?

Tenesmus is the feeling that you need to go to the toilet but your bowel is empty. It can involve straining, pain and cramping. It can be caused by cramps (spasms) in the muscles that stimulate the bowel.

Tell your doctor or nurse if you have these symptoms.

What causes tenesmus?

Tenesmus can be caused by changes to the rectum after pelvic radiotherapy or surgery for bowel cancer. Sometimes it can be a symptom of another problem like constipation, infection or a non-cancerous growth (a polyp) or cancer in the bowel.

Tenesmus treatment

If you have tenesmus, your doctor will examine your back passage and may arrange for you to have a camera test called a colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy to look at the bowel.

If your symptoms are a late effect of cancer treatment, your doctor may suggest:

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our tenesmus information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    Andreyev HJN, Muls AC, Norton C, et al. Guidance: The practical management of the gastrointestinal symptoms of pelvic radiation disease. Frontline Gastroenterology, 2015; 6, 53-72.

    Sterner A, Derwinger K, Staff C, et al. Quality of life in patients treated for anal carcinoma—a systematic literature review. International Journal of Colorectal Disease, 2019, 34, 1517–1528

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Chief Medical Editor, Professor Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 July 2021
Next review: 01 July 2024

This content is currently being reviewed. New information will be coming soon.

Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

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