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Large Intestine - want to learn more about it?

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Large Intestine

The large intestine, also known as the colon or large bowel, represents the last part of the gastrointestinal tract. Spanning the abdominal and pelvic cavities, it has a length of approximately 1.5 meters, almost equal to the height of a fully grown adult!

The large intestine is the place where feces are formed by the absorption of water from the passing intestinal contents. In addition to its role in the formation, storage and subsequently defecated of feces, the large intestine also houses an extensive microflora that is essential for our survival. To add some perspective, the microscopic gut microbiome weighs 1-2 kg, similar to your entire brain or to a pack of rice. 

Key facts about the large intestine
Parts Cecum, appendix, ascending colon, transverse colon, descending colon, sigmoid colon, rectum, anal canal
Functions Absorption of electrolytes and water, propulsion of intestinal contents, formation and temporary storage of feces, and defecation
Blood supply Midgut: superior mesenteric artery
Hindgut: inferior mesenteric artery
Innervation Enteric nervous system: Meissner and Auerbach plexuses
Sympathetic & parasympathetic: aortic, celiac, superior mesenteric, inferior mesenteric, hypogastric nervous plexuses
Clinical points Diverticulosis and Crohn's disease

In this article we’ll explore the anatomy, blood supply and innervation of the large intestine. 

Anatomy

The large intestine is a 1 to 1.5 meter continuation of the ileum, extending from the ileocecal junction to the anus. Most of the large intestine is located inside the abdominal cavity, with the last portion residing within the pelvic cavity. Some parts of it are intraperitoneal while others are retroperitoneal

Recommended video: Large intestine
Structure of the large intestine, including the mucosa and musculature.

The large intestine has several distinct anatomical characteristics; the omental appendices, teniae coli and haustra. Omental or epiploic appendages are fat filled pouches of peritoneum that are attached externally to the walls of the large intestine. Teniae coli are three longitudinal bands of smooth muscle located underneath the peritoneum that extend along certain sections of the large intestine. Their contractions facilitate the peristaltic action of the large intestine, propelling the fecal matter and forming the haustra. Haustra are sacculations that occur along the large intestine, providing it with its characteristic ‘baggy’ aspect. 

The large intestine consists of eight parts; the cecum, appendix, ascending colon, transverse colon, descending colon, sigmoid colon, rectum, and anal canal. The first six collectively form the colon. An overview is provided in the following large intestine diagram.

Anatomy of the large intestine - anterior view

Cecum

The cecum is the first part of the large intestine, lying in the right iliac fossa of the abdomen. The cecum is intraperitoneal with various folds and pockets (retrocecal peritoneal recesses) surrounding it.

The terminal ileum joins the cecum at the ileocolic junction. The ileocecal orifice is marked by the ileal papilla, which consists of two folds called ileocecal lips (superior, inferior). The folds fuse together around the orifice, forming the frenula of the ileal orifice, which prevents reflux of cecal contents into the ileum. An ileocecal valve regulates the passage of intestinal contents from the small into the large intestine. The functions of the cecum involve temporary storage of chyme, and fluid and electrolyte reabsorption.

Appendix

The vermiform appendix is a blind lymphoid pouch located in the right iliac fossa which arises from the cecum. These two parts of the large intestine are connected by the meso-appendix. The appendix has a role in the maintenance of gut flora and mucosal immunity. 

Are you curious to find out more about the cecum and appendix, and how they can be located inferior to the liver?  Details are provided below:

Ascending colon

The portion of the large intestine located between the cecum and rectum is termed the colon. It consists of four parts; ascending, transverse, descending, and sigmoid. The main functions of the colon include fluid and electrolyte reabsorption. In addition, the microflora generates energy through a process called fermentation.

The ascending colon travels through the right iliac fossa, right flank, and right hypochondriac region. It ends at the right colic (hepatic) flexure. The ascending colon is retroperitoneal and it is connected to the posterior abdominal wall by the Toldt’s fascia. A deep vertical groove or recess (right paracolic gutter) lies between the ascending colon and the lateral abdominal wall. The ascending colon is heavily involved in fluid and electrolyte reabsorption, gradually forming fecal matter.

Transverse colon

The transverse colon is the second major part of the colon. It extends between the right and left colic (splenic) flexures, spanning the right hypochondriac, epigastric and left hypochondriac regions of the abdomen. The greater curvature of the stomach and gastrocolic ligament are superior to the transverse colon, while the greater omentum hangs over and extends inferiorly to it. 

The transverse colon is intraperitoneal. A peritoneal mesentery (transverse mesocolon) attaches it to the posterior wall of the omental bursa. This forms two abdominal compartments called supracolic and infracolic compartments.

Descending colon

The descending colon extends between the left colic flexure and sigmoid colon. It travels through the left hypochondriac region, left flank and left iliac fossa. The left paracolic gutter is located between the descending colon and the lateral abdominal wall. 

This part of the colon is retroperitoneal. Toldt’s fascia fixes the descending colon to the posterior abdominal wall. 

Sigmoid colon

The S-shaped sigmoid colon travels from the left iliac fossa until the third sacral vertebra (rectosigmoid junction). This part of the colon is intraperitoneal. It is connected to the pelvic wall by the sigmoid mesocolon.

A detailed article about the sigmoid colon is provided below, as well as a video explaining the course of the peritoneum relative to the large intestine:

Rectum

The rectum stretches between the rectosigmoid junction and the anal canal. The typical characteristics of the large intestine (taenia coli, haustra, epiploic appendages) change or even terminate at the rectum. The roles of the rectum include temporary storage of fecal matter and defecation.

The rectum has a characteristic S-shape marked by several bends or turns; sacral, anorectal and lateral flexures. The latter correspond with three infoldings called transverse rectal folds. The rectum ends at a dilated ampulla.

Recommended video: Rectum and anal canal
Structures of the rectum and anal canal seen on a coronal section, anterior view of the female pelvis.

The rectum is partially intraperitoneal since the inferior third is subperitoneal. The peritoneum reflects from the rectum towards the bladder in males (rectovesical pouch) and the vaginal fornix in females (recto-uterine pouch or pouch of Douglas). 

The spaces around the rectum are potential spaces for infections, abscess formation, and many other pathologies. Therefore, you need to have a crystal clear understand about their anatomy, which you can find below

Anal canal

The anal canal forms the terminal part of the gastrointestinal tract. It extends from the anorectal junction to the anus. The latter represents the external orifice of the entire digestive system.

The mucosa of the superior half of the anal canal contains ridges called anal columns. The inferior portions of these columns contain anal valves, which are surrounded by anal sinuses. The latter are responsible for secreting lubricating mucus during defection. The anal valves also form the pectinate line which makes the distinction between the superior and inferior parts of the anal canal. They differ in terms of neurovascular supply and lymphatic drainage.

Anatomy of the rectum and anal canal - coronal view

The internal and external anal sphincters surround the anal canal. Respectively, they involuntarily and voluntarily control the release of stool. Both sphincters are tonically contracted to prevent the uncontrolled release of fecal matter or flatus. 

You can read more details about the anal canal below:

Function

The large intestine is responsible for several major functions: absorption of electrolytes (sodium, potassium, chloride) and water (1L/day), propulsion of intestinal contents, and the formation, temporary storage and defecation of feces. 

The large intestine houses the physiological microflora, which is rich in anaerobic bacteria (approx. 1011/g) that live in symbiosis with the human body. They fulfill essential functions such as decomposing indigestible food ingredients (e.g. cellulose), producing vitamin K, promoting intestinal peristalsis and supporting the immune system.

Wondering about the common pitfalls of anatomy learning? Save time and ease your studies about the large intestine by avoiding the common mistakes that hinder your anatomy learning.

Blood vessels

Arteries

The large intestine receives arterial blood predominantly from the superior and inferior mesenteric arteries. The former supplies the midgut derivatives, such as the cecum, appendix, ascending colon and the proximal two-thirds of the transverse colon via three main branches: ileocolic, right colic, and middle colic arteries

The inferior mesenteric artery supplies the hindgut derivates, namely the posterior third of the transverse colon, descending colon, sigmoid, colon, rectum and the upper part of the anal canal via three branches: left colic, sigmoid, and superior rectal arteries. The middle and inferior rectal arteries, which stem from the internal iliac artery, also supply hindgut derivates.

Arteries of the large intestine - anterior view

The superior and inferior mesenteric branches supplying the colon anastomose to form the marginal artery of Drummond. This runs along the inner margin of the large intestine, within the mesentery, and gives off direct arterial branches to the large intestine.

Arterial supply of the large intestine
Cecum Ileocolic artery
Appendix Appendicular artery
Ascending colon Ileocolic and right colic arteries
Transverse colon Middle colic artery
Descending colon Left colic artery
Sigmoid colon Sigmoid artery
Rectum Superior part: superior rectal artery
Middle & inferior parts: middle rectal artery
Anal canal Superior to pectineal line: superior rectal artery
Inferior to pectineal line: inferior rectal artery

Veins

Deoxygenated blood from the large intestine flows mostly into the superior and inferior mesenteric veins. The midgut derivates drain first into the colic veins, which in turn empty into the superior mesenteric vein. Hindgut derivates flow directly into the inferior mesenteric vein. 

The rectum has a special venous drainage. Middle rectal and inferior rectal veins drain this part of the gastrointestinal tract into the internal iliac and internal pudendal veins, respectively. 

Venous drainage of the large intestine
Cecum Ileocolic vein
Appendix Ileocolic vein
Ascending colon Right colic vein
Transverse colon Superior mesenteric vein
Descending colon Inferior mesenteric vein
Sigmoid colon Inferior mesenteric vein
Rectum Superior, middle, inferior rectal veins
Anal canal Superior to pectineal line: superior rectal vein
Pectineal line: internal rectal venous plexus
Inferior to pectineal line: inferior rectal vein

For more detail about the blood vessels of the large intestine and their trajectories, take a look at the explanations provided by our renowned anatomy geeks.

Innervation

The large intestine receives innervation from two main sources: enteric and autonomic nervous systems. The enteric nervous system (ENS) is specific to the gastrointestinal tract. It consists of two nervous plexus called Meissner’s and Auerbach’s myenteric plexuses. The former is located within the submucosa of the large intestine, while the latter is situated between the longitudinal and circular muscle layers. The ENS is responsible for the peristaltic contractions of the large intestine, as well as mucosal secretions.

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the second major contributor to the innervation of the large intestine. Sympathetic innervation to the midgut derivates originates from the T5-T12 spinal nerves and travel to the celiac and superior mesenteric plexuses via the greater and lesser splanchnic nerves. Whilst, sympathetic innervation to the hindgut structures originates from the S1-S2 spinal nerves and travel to the aortic, inferior mesenteric, hypogastric plexuses via the lumbar and sacral splanchnic nerves. Sympathetic nerves are responsible for slowing down motility within the large intestine and for inducing contractions of both the ileocecal valve and internal anal sphincter. 

The parasympathetic innervation to the midgut derivates travels via the vagus nerve (CN X) to the superior mesenteric and celiac plexuses. Hindgut structures receive parasympathetic innervation from the S2-S4 spinal nerves via the pelvic splanchnic nerves. These subsequently project to the hypogastric nervous plexus. Parasympathetic innervation is responsible for increasing the motility within the large intestine, inducing defecation and relaxing the internal anal sphincter.

In-depth explanations about spinal and peripheral nerves, as well as the autonomic nervous system, can be viewed below:

Related videos

Quizzes

Diverticulosis & Crohn's disease

Diverticulosis is a medical condition in which multiple sac-like protrusions called diverticula develop along the colon. Their highest frequency is within the sigmoid part. Diverticulosis has numerous risk factors, such as low fiber diet, physical inactivity, obesity and constipation. Diverticulosis is generally asymptomatic until the diverticula become inflamed (diverticulitis). This condition manifests with abdominal pain in the left iliac fossa, nausea, vomiting and low-grade fever. Uncomplicated diverticulitis is usually treated with oral antibiotics.

Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammatory bowel disease of unknown etiology which can affect any part of the alimentary tract, but most often the terminal ileum and colon. There are usually multiple inflammatory focuses leading to formation of multiple ulcers in the intestinal wall. The most common symptoms are fever, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and weight loss. Crohn’s disease is diagnosed by endoscopic and radiographic examination of the abdomen and is usually treated with immunosuppressants. 

Large Intestine - want to learn more about it?

Our engaging videos, interactive quizzes, in-depth articles and HD atlas are here to get you top results faster.

Sign up for your free Kenhub account today and join over 1,130,639 successful anatomy students.

“I would honestly say that Kenhub cut my study time in half.” – Read more. Kim Bengochea Kim Bengochea, Regis University, Denver

Show references

References:

  • John H Pemberton (2019): Colonic diverticulosis and diverticular disease: Epidemiology, risk factors, and pathogenesis, L. S. Friedman (Ed.) UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate Inc. Retrieved from https://www.uptodate.com
  • John H Pemberton (2019): Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of acute diverticulitis in adults, J. T. Lamont (Ed.) UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate Inc. Retrieved from https://www.uptodate.com
  • John H Pemberton (2019): Acute colonic diverticulitis: Medical management, M. Weiser (Ed.) UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate Inc. Retrieved from https://www.uptodate.com
  • Moore, K. L., Dalley, A. F., & Agur, A. M. R. (2014). Clinically Oriented Anatomy (7th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
  • Standring, S. (2016). Gray's Anatomy (41tst ed.). Edinburgh: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone.

Author:

  • Adrian Rad
  • Nicola McLaren

Illustrators:

  • Anatomy of the large intestine - anterior view - Begoña Rodriguez
  • Anatomy of the rectum and anal canal - coronal view - Samantha Zimmerman
  • Arteries of the large intestine - anterior view - Irina Münsterman
© Unless stated otherwise, all content, including illustrations are exclusive property of Kenhub GmbH, and are protected by German and international copyright laws. All rights reserved.

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