Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Rhianna McClymont

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

If you have infrequent bowel movements or have problems with bowel movements, you likely have constipation. Here we look at the causes, treatment and prevention.

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

Constipation symptoms

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

  • Stress, anxiety or depression

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

  • Exercise regularly

  • 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)

  • Pregnancy

  • Anxiety or depression

  • Diabetes

  • Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)

  • Hypercalcaemia

  • Muscular dystrophy

  • Multiple sclerosis

  • Parkinson’s disease

  • Piles

  • Bowel cancer

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.

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi