Constipation

Constipation is infrequent or difficult bowel movements. It can cause discomfort and pain that affects your daily life.

Summary

Signs you’re constipated include:

  • Having three or less bowel movements a week – or, if your bowel movements have always been infrequent, a change in your usual pattern
  • Problems passing stools – which are often dry, hard and sometimes lumpy and may also be unusually large or small
  • The sensation that your bowel’s not completely empty

Constipation is a common condition. At any time, one in seven adults is constipated, with women twice as likely to be affected as men. It’s also estimated that one in three children suffers from constipation, often linked to toilet training.

You’re more likely to suffer from constipation as you get older. It's also common during pregnancy and after having a baby.

Constipation may happen suddenly and only for a short time (acute) or may be gradual and long-term (chronic). However, whether acute or chronic constipation, simple lifestyle and diet changes usually bring constipation relief.

Causes of constipation

It’s often difficult to pinpoint the cause of acute or chronic constipation, but common reasons include:

  • Not eating enough fibre or drinking enough fluids
  • Not taking enough exercise
  • Stress or depression
  • Changes to your diet
  • Repeatedly ignoring the need to empty your bowels
  • Side effects of medication or long-term use of laxatives

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

Book an appointment

Conditions related to constipation

Very occasionally, severe constipation can be a symptom of a medical condition, including:

Getting a diagnosis for constipation

If you have severe constipation which is affecting your life or there’s blood in your stools, see your GP.

Your GP will discuss your symptoms and medical history with you and may carry out a physical examination.

Your GP may refer you for further tests, such as:

  • A stomach X-ray
  • Transit study examination – you'll swallow special capsules that show up on an X-ray to show how long it takes for food to travel through your digestion system
  • Blood tests – to check your thyroid and calcium levels
  • Anorectal manometry – to measure the strength of your rectum muscles
  • CT scan – to check for obstructions in your digestive system
  • Colonoscopy – a flexible tube with a camera attached

Your GP may also refer you to a gastroenterologist, a consultant who specialises in the digestive system.

Treatments for constipation

In most cases, simple changes to your diet and lifestyle should bring constipation relief. Home remedies for constipation include:

  • Drinking lots of fluids and avoiding alcohol
  • Increasing the amount of fibre you eat – more fruit, vegetables and wholegrain/wholemeal cereals, bread and pasta
  • Being more active
  • Getting into the habit of passing stools at roughly the same time every day – and don’t rush toilet visits
  • Raising your feet slightly (eg on a small stool or large book) when sitting on the toilet

If you continue to be constipated, your GP might prescribe laxatives or another medication. Your GP might also refer you to a dietitian for specialist advice about constipation relief.

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