Aim : To determine the clinical characteristics, management and outcome of Crohn's fistulas from the time of first presentation.

Methods : Patients treated for fistulas 6 years previously were assessed for disease demographics, fistula characteristics and treatment from first presentation to final follow-up.

Results : Eighty-seven patients with active Crohn's fistulas were evaluated. The median age was 35 years and the median duration of Crohn's disease was 8 years at study entry. Disease was ileo-colonic or colonic in 85%, and 65% had rectal involvement. A single fistula was present in one-third and multiple fistulas in two-thirds; 65% of fistulas were perianal; 80% of fistulas were complex. After a median follow-up from the last treatment of 5.9 years, 68% of patients showed healing of all fistulas, 18% showed healing of some fistulas and 14% showed no healing of fistulas. The fistula site did not influence healing. Perianal and recto-vaginal fistulas took a median of 2.6 years to heal. Half of the complex fistulas required a stoma, resection or proctectomy.

Conclusions : Healing is usually achieved. However, morbidity is great and healing is slow. Proctectomy is required in one-fifth of patients, and perineal healing is often slow. Defining the perianal fistula anatomy as complex or simple determines the likelihood of healing and the type of surgical approach required.