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Anatomical terms of muscle

A sphincter is a circular muscle that normally maintains constriction of a natural body passage or orifice and which relaxes as required by normal physiological functioning. Sphincters are found in many animals. There are over 60 types in the human body,[citation needed] some microscopically small, in particular the millions of precapillary sphincters.[1] Sphincters relax at death, often releasing fluids and faeces.[2]


Each sphincter is associated with the lumen (opening) it surrounds. As long as the sphincter muscle is contracted, its length is shortened and the lumen is constricted (closed). Relaxation of the muscle causes it to lengthen, opening the lumen and allowing the passage of liquids, solids, or gases.

This is evident, for example, in the blowholes of numerous marine mammals.

Many sphincters are used every day in the normal course of digestion. For example, the lower oesophageal sphincter (or cardiac sphincter), which resides at the top of the stomach, is closed most of the time, keeping acids and other stomach contents from pushing up and into the oesophagus, but opens to let swallowed food pass into the stomach.


Sphincters can be further classified into functional and anatomical sphincters:[citation needed]

  • Anatomical sphincters have a localised and often circular muscle thickening to facilitate their action as a sphincter.
  • Functional sphincters do not have this localised muscle thickening and achieve their sphincteric action through muscle contraction around (extrinsic) or within (intrinsic) the structure.

Sphincters can also be voluntarily or involuntarily controlled:


Diagram of ileocaecal valve and sphincter


  1. ^ a b Vander, Arthur; Sherman, James; Luciano, Dorothy (1994). Human Physiology: The Mechanism of Body Function (Sixth Edition, International ed.). McGraw Hill, Inc. pp. 437–440. ISBN 0-07-113761-0.
  2. ^ Emanuel, Linda L.; Ferris, Frank D.; von Gunten, Charles F.; Hauser, Joshua M.; Von Roenn, Jamie H. (February 11, 2010). "The Last Hours of Living: Practical Advice for Clinicians". Medscape.