Rectal suppository insertion: the reliability of the evidence as a basis for nursing practice


  • Ann Bradshaw PhD, RN, Dip N,

  • Lynda Price BA

Ann Bradshaw Jack Straws Lane Marston Oxford OX3 0FL UK
Telephone: 01865 482633


Aims and objectives.  This paper considers the correct method for inserting a rectal suppository, both as a medication and also to achieve bowel evacuation. The aim is to find out whether the correct method is blunt end or pointed end foremost.

Background.  It follows from a question raised by a third year student nurse. In the classroom, she had been taught that the correct method for the administration of a suppository for systemic absorption was to insert it blunt end foremost into the rectum. However, if the suppository was to be used for evacuant purposes, it should be given pointed end foremost. In clinical practice, however, she was told the suppository should always be inserted pointed end foremost in all cases, whatever the purpose.

Design.  This article seeks to clarify the dilemma by examining the sources of evidence underpinning different methods for inserting a rectal suppository. Hence, the literature on the insertion of rectal suppositories was gathered as systematically as possible from medical journals and textbooks, nursing journals and textbooks and manufacturers’ information to patients.

Method.  Having gathered the literature, this was examined, appraised and critically analysed for rigour, coherence and reliability.

Results.  The review of the literature appears to show that evidence adduced for inserting the suppository blunt end foremost derives from one study published in the Lancet in 1991, which challenged ‘commonsense’. There did not appear to be other, more recent research. On the other hand, manufacturers’ information to patients states generally that the suppository should be inserted pointed end foremost. This has direct relevance for the administration of suppositories and also raises questions as to how research may become integrated into healthcare practice without adequate justification.

Conclusions.  An article published in the Lancet in 1991 has had a fundamental effect on nursing practice, but has not been subject to scrutiny. The advice given in this Lancet article differs from that currently given by most manufacturers of suppositories, which involves the terms of their product licence. Hence, there is a potential for problems with legal liability should an untoward event arise.

Relevance to clinical practice.  Inserting rectal suppositories, whether as a medication or to achieve bowel evacuation, is a very common healthcare practice. Currently, there is inconsistency and discrepancy in the correct method for this procedure in both nursing education and practice. This paper examines the reliability of existing evidence and shows the need for further work in order to provide a reliable evidence base for this commonplace clinical procedure.