What is constipation?
Constipation is a common condition that affects people of all ages. You probably have constipation if:
You’ve not had a bowel movement (poo) at least three times in the last week
Your bowel movements are large and dry or hard and lumpy
You have to push hard (strain) while having a bowel movement
The symptoms of constipation are:
Infrequent bowel movements
Problems trying to poo (straining)
Hard or lumpy poos
Bloating in your abdomen (tummy)
A feeling as though you can’t empty your bowel or you’re not finished
What causes constipation?
Many things can cause constipation in adults. The most common causes include:
Not eating enough fibre in your diet, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts
Not drinking enough fluids
Not exercising enough
Not moving around enough
Ignoring the urge to go to the toilet
Taking certain medications
Pregnancy or if you’ve recently given birth
Constipation in children has several possible causes, including:
Not eating enough high-fibre foods like fruit and vegetables
Not drinking enough fluids
Feeling worried or anxious about using the potty or toilet
Regularly being interrupted during toilet training
Worry or anxiety about significant changes like starting nursery or school or the arrival of a new baby brother or sister
Sometimes if a child is constipated, they may find it painful or uncomfortable to poo, so they won’t try to go. This can create a vicious circle making constipation worse.
How to get rid of constipation
There are several things you can do to constipation, as well as natural methods of constipation treatment:
Drink plenty of fluids
Increase the fibre in your diet by eating more fruit, vegetables, whole grains (especially bran), seeds and nuts
Don’t ignore the urge to have a bowel movement. This may cause the poo to dry out and harden, making your constipation worse
Other constipation treatment for adults include:
Trying to keep to a regular time to go the toilet
Resting your feet on a low stool while going for a poo
Taking a laxative (medicine that helps you poo). A pharmacist can give you advice on a suitable laxative
When should I talk to a doctor about constipation?
Have your bowel movements changed? Or are your bowel movements causing you a lot of discomfort?
You should make an appointment with a GP if:
The constipation treatment doesn’t seem to be working
You’re regularly constipated for long periods
Your tummy is bloated for a long time
You see blood in your poo
You’re losing weight without trying
You’re tired constantly
You think the medicine you’re taking is causing constipation (don’t stop taking your prescriptions until you’ve spoken to the doctor)
Complications of chronic constipation
If you’ve had very infrequent bowel movements and Constipation for several weeks or longer is called chronic (long-term) constipation.
Chronic constipation can lead to a complication called faecal impaction. This is a large, hard mass of poo that becomes stuck in the large intestine (rectum).
The main symptoms of faecal impaction may include:
Diarrhoea or loose bowel movements (runny poos) after a bout of constipation
Pain or discomfort in your abdomen
Bloating in your abdomen
Feeling sick or vomiting
It’s essential to see the doctor if you think you’re suffering from faecal impaction because it can be serious if left untreated. The doctor may recommend:
Stronger prescription laxatives (a medicine to make you poo)
A suppository – medication you insert into your bottom to help you poo
A mini enema – fluid is passed through your bottom to push the poo out
Removal of the poo by a healthcare professional
Treating and diagnosing chronic constipation
Constipation or having no bowel movements for a few days if usually nothing to worry about and can be treated easily. But in some cases, constipation may be due to an underlying health condition and so it’s worth speaking to a GP if you’re worried.
Some of the more common health conditions that can cause constipation or a change in bowel movements include:
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
Anxiety or depression
Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
A GP can advise whether you need any further tests to diagnose a possible health condition and talk through the options for treatment or management.
They can also advise you on which type of constipation treatment is most suitable.
- Reviewed by:
- Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi