Constipation is a condition in which you’re unable to pass stools regularly or completely empty your bowel.

Constipation can occur in adults, children and babies. The condition affects twice as many women as men and is also more common in older adults and in pregnancy. In fact, constipation can be a symptom of pregnancy.

While most people experience constipation at some point, for others it can become a chronic, painful condition that affects their quality of life.

Constipation causes include:

  • Insufficient fluids
  • Insufficient fibre (fruit, vegetables, legumes, cereals — especially bran)
  • Change in your routine or lifestyle
  • Ignoring the urge to pass stools
  • Side effects of certain medications
  • Various medical conditions including an underactive thyroid, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), some gut disorders, and conditions that cause poor mobility
  • Anxiety or depression

What are its symptoms?

The length of time between bowel movements ranges from person to person. Some people have bowel movements three times a day, others, only one or two times a week. But going longer than three days without a bowel movement is too long.

Constipation symptoms will see a change in your usual pattern, experience difficulty in passing a stool, and the appearance of stools may change.

Symptoms in adults:

  • Stomach aches and cramps
  • Feeling bloated, swollen abdomen
  • Feeling sick
  • Loss of appetite
  • The feeling of an unfinished bowel movement
  • Vomiting
  • Occasional diarrhoea

Constipation in toddlers will cause them to become irritable and unhappy, emit foul-smelling wind and stools, and they may soil their clothes.

How is it diagnosed?

It’s possible to treat constipation yourself with simple changes to your diet and lifestyle. But you need to consult your doctor if these changes are not successful.

A diagnosis is fairly typical and easily made. Your doctor will conduct a physical examination and ask about your medical history. Make sure you disclose any information you can about your condition.

Your doctor may perform the following tests:

  • Blood tests if a hormonal imbalance is suspected
  • Barium studies to look for obstruction of the colon
  • A colonoscopy to look for obstruction of the colon

If constipation is caused by colon cancer, early detection and treatment is very important.

What are your treatment options?

Constipation treatment starts with home remedies like diet and lifestyle changes. This includes following a healthy diet (ask your doctor about foods to avoid), exercising regularly, drinking plenty of fluids, and not ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement.

If those changes don’t help, your doctor may recommend medications or surgery.

Medication includes:

  • Fibre supplements: they add bulk to your stool
  • Osmotics: an osmotic laxative help fluids move through the colon
  • Lubricants: they enable stools to move through your colon more easily
  • Stool softeners: they moisten the stool by drawing water from the intestines

In chronic cases, where your constipation is caused by rectocele (a herniation, or bulge of the front wall of the rectum into the back wall of the vagina), anal fissure (cut or tear in the anus) or anal stricture (narrowing of the anal canal), surgery may be an option.

Can it be prevented?

There are a number of lifestyle changes you can make to prevent constipation:

  • Eat a well-balanced diet with plenty of fibre
  • Drink plenty of water and other fluids every day
  • Exercise regularly
  • Avoid liquids that contain caffeine as these have a dehydrating effect. They should definitely be avoided until your bowel habits return to normal.
  • Some people may need to avoid milk, as dairy products may be constipating for them.
The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in May 2015